31 August 2009

A Wind of Change?

As I mentioned yesterday, the Opposition Democratic Party of Japan has won a landslide victory in yesterday's elections, taking 308 seats (more than double their last haul) out of a possible 480. The main governing party, the Liberal Democratic Party, took just 119. The two parties' positions were almost exactly reversed in an 11.4% swing - how very Blair-like!

But then, should we be surprised? The LDP has governed Japan for all but eleven months in the last 54 years. Sooner or later, voters were going to get hacked off, especially with the economy in the doldrums, and the party having four leaders in as many years can't have helped matters. Junichiro Koizumi stood down as expected in September 2006; Shinzo Abe cited health reasons (and severe personal unpopularity) for his departure a year later; Yasuo Fukuda blamed political deadlock in September 2008, leaving Taro Aso to hold the fort. He failed.

And the main factor that it's taken this long for the LDP to lose is that it's taken this long for there to be someone that the LDP could lose to. Even in the run-up to this election, there were doubts about the DPJ's ability to strike the final blow and for a while, former leader Ichiro Ozawa was openly musing about a Grand Coalition between the two parties. Nevertheless, Yukio Hatoyama made the breakthrough. The last time any opposition managed to oust the LDP in 1993, it was basically an all-party Coalition (including some former LDP splinter parties) that simply couldn't last.

Of course, you could argue that this is part of a wider anti-incumbency picture: just take a look at the other G8 nations.

In Canada in 2006, Stephen Harper's Conservatives succeeded in ousting the Liberal Party which had been in office for 13 years: a victory made all the more astonishing when you bear in mind that the party was formed from a merger between the Progressive Conservatives - who went from 169 seats to just two in 1993 - and a party on the basket-case end of the right-wing spectrum which had gone through numerous incarnations since its formation in 1987. And to rub salt into Liberal wounds, a subsequent election in 2008 saw the Tories stay in office, and attempts to dislodge Harper's minority government have come to nothing, albeit with Gubernatorial intervention.

In Germany, the SPD have been in Government in one way or another since 1998, albeit as part of a Grand Coalition with Angela Merkel of the CDU since 2005. But opinion polls for the upcoming election to the Bundestag have Merkel being able to form a Coalition with her preferred partner, the FDP, sending the SPD back into opposition.

Of course, in the USA, we all know (how could we not?) about Barack Obama's election as President - significant not only for ejecting the Republicans from power, but also because he managed to beat the assumed Democratic candidate to his party's nomination. And let's not forget that in the 2006 mid-terms, the Democrats managed to end twelve years of GOP control.

Then there's the UK. The signposts have been around for sometime: the SNP's victory in the 2007 elections (repeated this June in the Europeans), putting Labour into second place for only the second time in 40 years of elections in Scotland; Boris Johnson being elected Mayor of London; and the European elections which saw Labour lose first place in Wales for the first time since WW1, and fall to third across the UK, behind the Tories and UKIP. And opinion polls for the next General Election currently give the Tories of around 15 points. Basically, Labour, who have been calling the shots since 1997, will most likely be in opposition by next June.

So that's five G8 nations, all showing major change: the Liberals' thirteen-year rule in Canada being ended by Stephen Harper; the Republicans' twelve years of control in Congress and eight years in the White House coming to an end in the US; the SPD's eleven-year presence in the German Federal Government is under threat; and it looks like the curtain will fall on the UK Labour Government on or around its thirteenth anniversary. So an end to fifteen continuous years of LDP rule in Japan, and 53 out of the last 54 years in office at that, shouldn't be much of a surprise.

There are, of course, exceptions: Vladimir Putin has a vice-like grip on politics in Russia; while Nicolas Sarkozy is well-ensconced in the French Presidency and despite recent scandals, Silvio Berlusconi's position in Italy is relatively secure. In the latter two cases, this may have more to do with a complete and abject failure on the part of the country's respective oppositions to get their act together. If France's Socialists stop quibbling amongst themselves (or get eclipsed altogether by another party), and Italy's Democrats get their arses in gear, then both Sarkozy and Berlusconi are in trouble: a divided Socialist Party's Presidential candidate, Ségolène Royal, came within just two million votes of beating Sarkozy (out of an electorate of more than 44 million, that could be described as marginal); while the never-ending wave of scandals hitting the Berlusconi government needs nothing more and nothing less than an opposition capable of capitalising on them. Even Putin isn't necessarily safe: he may seem all-powerful now, but constitutional power still technically resides with the President, Dmitriy Medvedev. If he decides to try and step out of Putin's shadow, then anything could happen...

In short, the fall of the LDP and the rise of Yukio Hatoyama is just another chapter in a tale of major change at the top table of global politics. The next instalment? The Bundestag, this time next month, when we'll find out whether Angela Merkel really is Germany's Margaret Thatcher, as she's so frequently billed, or merely Germany's Neil Kinnock.

7 comments:

Bill said...

Well, whatever else she is, Angela Merkel is not Germany's Neil Kinnock; after all she has been in power for several years (after a shaky start), whereas Kinnock never achieved that, happily.

It certainly is a major change in Japan - let's hope that country is finally breaking free of the slump that has been affecting it for an uncomfortably long number of years.

James said...

I'm not sure a gap of 2m votes in France makes for a close result - it was a gap of more than 5%.

In the Euro-election (as you hint elsewhere), interestingly, the Socialists came second with just 35,000 votes more than the Greens. The turnout was much lower, but that's still a margin of two tenths of one percent.

Not saying it'll hold in other elections, mind.

Will said...

Bill, that's true (though I'm not entirely sure how even the weakest possible Kinnock administration could have been more feeble and cringeworthy than the latter part of the Major Premiership - at best it would have been six of one and half a dozen of the other, IMO), but what I was getting at was that the SPD-led Coalition was unpopular, and that Merkel was expected to get a clear victory, but ended up being hamstrung by a) a less-than-charismatic personality and b) headbangers on her own side potentially deterring possible CDU/CSU voters - such as the economics adviser who chose the election campaign to start talking openly about a flat tax - and ended up having to form a Grand Coalition. The Tory Government was unpopular, Kinnock was expected to win but ended up being hamstrung by... well, you get the idea. The only difference was that Merkel managed to get something and Kinnock failed completely.

James, the margin of Sarkozy's victory may not be especially close, but by UK standards, the percentage lead - and the swing required to overturn it - would be considered as marginal. Though like you say, it's telling that in the latest test of opinion has the gap between first and second massively outweighing the gap between second and third. Until there's a clear opposition party, with the Greens either managing to overtake the Socialists or failing to build on the current momentum and simply fading away, Sarkozy can pretty much do what he likes.

James said...

That's all fair, I agree. While the left fractures and the right doesn't, Sarkozy is free.

Incidentally, although our Gallic chums nearly came third, another greenish list got more than 3.5%, which would have got the Greens a third of the way to topping the poll altogether. Weird.

James Higham said...

This is most certainly one to keep and eye on.

Anonymous said...

US hypocrisy

Jim Carveup said...

http://www.scottishreview.net/KRoy133.html

KENNETH ROY

Can the public service broadcaster be trusted?

The BBC and Kenny MacAskill