It's not 1954 all over again

At a press conference over the weekend, Katsuya Okada, the DPJ's secretary-general stressed that because Hatoyama will be winning the mandate for the party, Hatoyama should serve a full four-year term (which, Okada stated, a DPJ government will serve so that it is able to accomplish its goals).

After four prime ministers in four years, I can understand why Okada would emphasize that Hatoyama will continue to serve the full term — with the party's 2010 leadership election being no obstacle — but in practical terms, I hope that the DPJ manages to find someone else to govern in Hatoyama's place.

Ultimately this election will not turn on the party leaders. And if the DPJ wins, its success or failure will depend on its ability to make the prime minister less the focus of attention. Naoto Kan and other DPJ officials, after all, have stressed the importance of bolstering the power of the cabinet as an institution, as opposed to the personal power of the prime minister. The LDP's revolving door in its leadership has been a function of an undue emphasis on the man occupying the prime minister's chair (even as the LDP systematically undermined his power).

However, the general election is now less than two weeks away, and undoubtedly as it approaches we will hear more about the clash between Taro Aso and Ichiro Hatoyama, the scions from storied political families now serving as the leaders of the LDP and the DPJ respectively. (We already got a hint of this in the article mentioned here.)

But the interesting thing about this election is how little in common it has with 1954, when Ichiro Hatoyama won the battle to replace Shigeru Yoshida and cleared the way for the creation of the LDP in the process.

Yes, there is the personal interest angle of having these two at the heads of the leading parties in 2009, but what's interesting is not how this shows how little Japan has changed, but rather how much it has changed since 1954. The war between Yoshida and Hatoyama was fought in the proverbial smoke-filled rooms, as conservatives like Kishi worked to assemble a coalition of conservatives that could govern in Yoshida's places.

And today? Two parties, one vaguely center-left, the other center-right, fighting openly, having debates, publishing manifestos, touring the country, the stuff of democracy. For now, it seems like voters will be making their decisions on 30 August more on the basis of these aspects of the campaign than the party's messengers. And if personality matters, it is probably the personality of the candidates in their district rather than that of the distant party leader that matters most. The fact that Hatoyama and Aso are those party leaders is more a coincidence, a function of the odds in favor of hereditary politicians serving in important posts.

But I think the media has a tendency to cast everything in terms of individuals, which is why one reads stories about the role that Aso has played in the downfall of the LDP (when for the most part Aso has simply found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time). Similarly, the drama between Aso and Hatoyama is apparently more compelling than the drama of an opposition party being in a position to defeat the LDP decisively for the first time since the LDP's birth in 1955.

This campaign is unquestionably about the parties: the public's loss of confidence in the LDP as a ruling party (of which Aso is but the tiniest of symptoms), and the DPJ's struggle to convince the public that it can be trusted with power.

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