The recent elections in Japan were a huge defeat for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the right wing prime minister Shinzo Abe.
Elections were held for 121 seats of the upper house – the equivalent of the House of Lords or US Senate – of the Japanese parliament.
The LDP won 37 of the seats. The main opposition, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), became the majority in the upper house with 60 seats. The last time the LDP did anything like this badly, in 1998, the then prime minister resigned.
A post-election opinion poll showed only 26 percent of people support for Abe’s cabinet, while 47 percent want him to resign immediately.
Even if Abe doesn’t resign these election results are still historic.
The LDP has ruled Japan almost continuously for 60 years. It represents an alliance of big business, the construction industry and the US.
The background to the election is the pressure on that coalition to introduce neoliberal “reforms”, pursued ruthlessly by Abe and his predecessor Junichiro Koizumi.
Koizumi won the general election in 2005 while proposing to privatise the post office – which he managed to present as a challenge to the conservatism of his own party. Now such policies have produced a backlash against his successor.
Many people think Japan is a wealthy and egalitarian country.
But Japanese society is becoming more unequal because of neoliberal policies. Some 15.3 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and income inequality is greater than in most other developed countries.
One third of the labour force are contract workers, mostly earning about £150 a week. Some 43 percent of people in the post-election poll opposed the LDP’s economic policies. The growing income gap was the third most important issue for voters in the election.
The biggest issue was the loss of 64 million people’s pension records. That scandal is part of a bigger crisis in the Japanese pension system.
Japan’s bosses want workers to retire later on smaller pensions, just like their counterparts want in Britain. The pensions scandal has been a focus for anger at “reform”.
Also important were a series of scandals and gaffes that reminded voters of the LDP’s distance from ordinary people.
One minister committed suicide over a corruption scandal. Another described women as “breeding machines” and a third said that the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki “couldn’t be helped”.
Like New Labour, the LDP have combined neoliberalism at home with war abroad. After Britain, the Japanese government has been George Bush’s closest ally.
Japanese troops joined the occupation of Iraq. This violates the country’s constitution which forbids the use of force abroad.
Now only transport planes remain in Iraq but Abe has continued to support the war. He sought to make the election a trial run for a future referendum on changing the constitution.
Abe has also changed Japan’s education system to foster nationalism and deny Japan’s wartime atrocities.
The government has concentrated its rhetoric on North Korea – unleashing chauvinist attacks on Japan’s large Korean minority.
So the election was a welcome defeat for a party of bigots, buffoons and privatisers. But the main victors were the DPJ. Some commentators see the elections as the beginning of a two party system – consisting of two pro-business parties.
The DPJ is a highly contradictory force. It emerged from splits in both the LDP and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) during the latter’s brief period in power in the 1990s. Following the splits the SPD collapsed to just two seats.
Many NGO activists and even the Rengo trade union federation look to the party as an alternative.
The DPJ majority in the upper house may block Abe’s plans to revise the constitution and extend cooperation with US wars. However, Ichiro Ozawa, the party leader, is a former LDP general secretary.
The DPJ is not opposed to revising the constitution in principle. After the election the odiously right wing former prime minister Yoshiro Mori said, “There are no big differences between the LDP and the DPJ.” The DPJ also stands for neoliberalism. Only 9 percent of voters said they had good expectations of DPJ policies.
Left wing parties did not do well in the election. The SDP kept its two seats. The Communist Party kept three of its four seats. It has traditionally defended the constitution and mentioned inequality in its campaign.
However, it could not provide an effective focus for the frustration with LDP rule. Japan’s trade unions have been weakened in recent years, particularly since the privatisation of the railways in the 1980s.
Japan has not seen major workers’ struggles over the last few years. The Japanese state has also grown increasingly authoritarian in recent years, using conspiracy laws to harass activists.
Nonetheless, the election shows a clear rejection of the LDP and Abe’s vision of society. The cracks in the political system result from the same fusion of war and inequality that characterises neoliberalism across the world. For that reason, and because the DPJ offers no real alternative, changes will continue.
There are stirrings of a political response to neoliberalism.
These are particularly to be found in the grassroots movements of contract workers and against Abe’s nationalist plans. This means that for anti-war and anti-capitalist activists next year’s G8 in Japan will be even more important.