The Liberal Democratic Party’s unexpected victory in last month’s general elections in Japan, after a soporific campaign conducted in the face of complete electoral indifference, gives Europe something to think about – the Italians in particular, for whom the Japanese analogy points up the grim possibility of a Christian Democrat (DC) revival, with its fake piety (and authentic bossism). An extraordinary, indeed absurd similarity between Italian and Japanese politics has persisted for more than forty years and still persists today. In both countries, a dominant anti-Communist party, the Christian Democrats in Italy, the Liberal Democrats in Japan, governed without interruption throughout the Cold War, because anti-American neutralists and Communists never received enough votes to form a government, but always got too many to leave room for a competing centrist party.

In both countries, many different kinds of anti-Communist were forced into the same ‘ruling’ party, which functioned as a coalition of rival, often quarrelsome factions. Instead of an alternation that would periodically bring a new party into office to clean up the corruption of its predecessors, there was only a cyclical succession of factions, each taking its turn at enjoying the fruits of ministerial power. Because faction leaders could not attract parliamentary support on ideological grounds, they offered posts, favours, campaign funds or just plain money, to their followers. They had to accept or extort bribes from business interests, themselves becoming political entrepreneurs even as businessmen seeking government contracts, grants or licences became increasingly politicised. This confusion of roles guaranteed corrupt practices, which by the Eighties had reached extraordinary proportions.

In both countries, the almost mechanical process of political decadence continued for many years without provoking an electoral revolt because it co-existed with an above average economic performance, beginning with the economic ‘miracles’ of the Fifties. The reason the growth of the two economies looked so impressive was that they were starting off from a base of pre-industrial poverty at a time when the West as a whole was enjoying a rising tide of prosperity. The ruling party of each country received most of the credit for the successes of the economy – which it fully exploited by accumulating a mountain of public debt rather than raising taxes. (In the absence of a Maastricht limit, Japan’s debt continues to grow, at the rate of more than $425 billion in both 1994 and 1995.) The one thing that neither ruling party could even pretend to do was to reform the state apparatus itself. In both countries it was highly centralised in 1950 and remained highly centralised in 1990, while different forms of decentralisation were taking place in every other advanced country, even France. In Japan and Italy, the bureaucracy acquired more power than in almost any other democracy, in part because ministers were appointed and replaced at such a rate that they were unable to establish control over the officials who were supposed to be working under them, in part because they were vulnerable to bureaucratic black-mail and in part because factional intrigue was a full-time job in itself, with scarcely a moment left over for ministerial duties. In each case people voted for politicians to represent their interests, but once in office the politicians failed to direct the bureaucracy to serve those interests.

There was and remains, however, a very big difference: Japan’s bureaucrats are strictly selected, well-trained, mostly very efficient and rarely corrupt. The indefatigable bureaucrats of the Ministry of Education, for example, run the public schools in a rigidly conservative way, but they also ensure that teaching is conducted at a uniformly high standard even in the most remote fishing village. Businessmen are similarly well-served by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, which assists any exporter who asks for its help – even a workshop which wants to sell pencils in Bolivia. But the ruling party can claim no credit for that: Japan’s bureaucracy was always efficient, just as Italy’s was mostly inefficient, and in neither case did politicians change things one way or the other.

Finally, in both Italy and Japan the sudden end of the Cold War abruptly removed the strategic necessity for a dominant party of government that could be relied on to win every election. Long-established malpractice and plain thievery no longer had to be tolerated in silence so that neutralists and Communists could be kept from power. The result was an amazing flurry of scandals that destroyed the two ruling parties by implicating almost all of their leaders. Between 1989 and 1993, while the DC and PSI were collapsing in Italy, in Japan LDP Prime Ministers Noburo Takeshita, Sosuke Uno and Kiichi Miyazawa, as well as the Party’s strongman, Shin Kanemaru, were forced to leave politics in quick succession, along with dozens of former ministers, and in due course make their appearance in court. In Italy, much given to the cult of personality, most of the credit for having started the big clean-up went to one man, Antonio Di Pietro. In collectivistic Japan, there was no single hero. In both cases it was the end of the Cold War that really did the job.

The parallels remain striking. In both countries, the strongest party of the left – the Socialists in Japan, the Communist Party in Italy – finally dropped its affiliation to Beijing or Moscow, adopted moderate, post-Marxist policies, and thus became eligible for power. But no neat two-party system could emerge because the task of replacing the defunct centre-right ruling party turned out to be extremely difficult. In Japan, the ex-LDP aristocrat, Morihiro Hosokawa, founds the New Party in 1992, quickly becomes prime minister by forming a coalition with ex-LDP fragments and socialists – now Social Democrats – in July 1993, but must resign by April 1994, thus winning and losing power as rapidly as Berlusconi, who also created his own brand-new party and led it to victory, only to lose power shortly afterwards because of the Lega’s defection.

In both countries the newly moderate party of the left – Japan’s Social Democrats and Italy’s Democratic Party of the Left (PDS), formerly the Communist Party – does well enough at the polls to form a government in incongruous alliance with remnants of the old anti-Communist coalition, mainly very conservative LDP fragments in Japan, mainly Christian Democrat fragments in Italy. At first, however, there is a difference, because in Japan the Social Democratic leader Tomiichi Murayama becomes prime minister in June 1994, while in Italy the PDS-dominated coalition is headed by the ex-DC Romano Prodi, while Massimo D’Alema remains outside the Government, enjoying most of the power without any of the responsibility. In January 1996, even this difference is eliminated when the ex-LDP Ryutaro Hashimoto replaces Murayama to become Japan’s Prodi.

The centre-left coalition failed to win a net majority of the votes in either country in the last elections, but was still able to form a government thanks to the inability of the opposition parties to structure their own centre-right coalition. In Japan, the focus of discord is the unconventionally individualistic figure of Ichiro Ozawa, head of the new Shinshinto (New Frontier) Party – a strenuous advocate of bureaucratic reform and decentralisation from Tokyo. In Italy it is of course the iconoclastic, provocative Umberto Bossi, an even more strenuous advocate of decentralisation from Rome, who broke up Silvio Berlusconi’s coalition, and now stands in the way of a cohesive centre-right opposition. Just as Italy has acquired its Forza Italia, as well as a re-manufactured Alleanza Nazionale and a whole host of new ex-DC and ex-Socialist Party mini-parties, without coming up with an efficient substitute for the DC, so the Japanese have failed to replace the LDP with their new parties: Hosokawa’s New Japan Party (already almost dead), the Social Democrats, Sakigake, another failed attempt at a broad reformist party, and Ozawa’s Shinshinto. Each time a ‘new’ party was formed, the younger political activists would converge on it; each time they would be bitterly disappointed: forty years of one-party rule have done nothing to institutionalise the skills of democratic governance.

In the run-up to Japan’s elections to the lower house last month, the focus of youthful hopes was the brand-new Minshuto or Democratic Party of Naoto Kan, ex-Vietnam activist, Health Minister in Hashimoto’s Government, fierce critic of bureaucratic power and an exceptionally outspoken leader, if only by very tame Japanese standards. His election slogans were gyokaku (translatable as ‘administrative reform’) and ‘citizen-power’, and his ace in the hole is the man he recruited as his number two, Yukio Hatoyama, the well-connected son and grandson of (conservative) ministers, whose loving mother happens to have saved up a little money to launch his political career: five billion yen (US$45 million) to be exact – or so it is said. One can already see why Kan’s party might not be quite as ‘citizen-centred’ as he says it will be.

Nothing suggests that there will be a sudden improvement in the prospects for a more representative democracy. Hashimoto’s remnant of the LDP last governed with the support of less than 30 per cent of the electorate, and pre-election polls indicated that 31 per cent of the voters favoured no party at all. In Italy, more people voted for the Polo della Libertà centre-right coalition than for the centre-left Ulivo in the last elections, only to find themselves ruled primarily by the ex-Communist PDS, and taxed primarily according to the priorities of Rifondazione, the unreconstructed Leninists. In Japan, citizen participation, feeble to the point of nullity, has contrived to diminish even further. In Italy, Bossi’s extravagant secessionism paradoxically but predictably reinforces the status quo.

It is the substantive similarity in the configuration of the political parties in the two countries that should concern the Italians, so recently released from half a century of Christian Democrat rule. In Japan, the LDP won 239 seats out of 500, with 156 going to the runner-up, Shinshinto, and only 52 to Naoto Kan’s disappointed hopefuls, the Minshuto: both Shinshinto and Minshuto were tainted with the same signs of corruption as the LDP, while neither had its record of expertise in government. Obliged to choose between experienced crooks and inexperienced crooks, the voters made the sensible decision. The Communists took 26 seats – a gain of 11 – by securing the votes of those on the left who could not face the miserable choice between the no-longer socialist Social Democrats (down to 15 seats) and the remnants of yesterday’s would-be reformers in Sakigake, who had their chance and lost it. In Italy, too, Berlusconi’s Forza Italia is fatally weakened by its leader’s refusal to choose between polities and his business empire, which includes all three non-state television networks, while the Alleanza Nazionale hasn’t quite made itself over from its neo-fascist origins into a persuasively democratic party. Here and in Japan, the construction of broad new parties within a right-left spectrum offers the best long-term prospect for representative democracy. Without that the LDP will go on enjoying its new lease of life, just as in Italy the Christian Democrats are visibly preparing to do. For neither country is this good news.

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