Yves here. Readers asked our Japan-watcher Clive for his take on the snap election in Japan, where voting takes place this Sunday. Contrary to the norm for Japanese politics, there may be less here than meets the eye. In addition, Clive provides an update on Japanese media and official statements on the TransPacific Partnership negotiations.
By Clive, a regular Naked Capitalism commenter and self-confessed Japan-o-phile
(translation – “putting a nickel out as cat food”, or in other words, doing something completely useless. As we’d say in England, “that’s about as much use as a chocolate teapot”)
I’ve been following the story of the Japanese election, but unfortunately it has been a complete non-event – in so far as it has merely gone through all the expected stages with all the familiar actors making all the usual moves. What would definitely have been worth more detailed reportage and analysis was if any of the left leaning (perhaps “alternative”, as in an alternative to the dominant Liberal Democratic Party or LDP, is a better word) parties had used the opportunity to elucidate even semi-coherent alternatives to what the LDP is offering. But no.
For those who need a recap, incumbent Prime Minister Abe called a snap election in what was billed as a referendum on so-called “Abenomics”. “Abenomics” didn’t amount to much more than a dose of neoliberalism in terms of economic policy (monetary easing and aiming for fiscal neutrality if not outright retrenchment) with some territorial posturing and a potential mild resurgence of militarism thrown in for good measure. In other words, pretty much the last things Japan needed. It was, however, like all elections a gamble and it has been a useful illustration of the resultant staleness of Japanese politics – reflecting, it has to be said, a similar malaise in both U.S. and European politics too (Scotland, Greece and perhaps Italy or Brazil in South America being honourable exceptions).
If ever there was a political establishment which wasn’t that weighed down by baggage of conventional economic thinking, it was Japan’s. Japan has not been slow to cast its ideological net around in the hope of catching some good ideas about how to manage a country’s economy. Unfortunately, in Japan as elsewhere, new economic thinking struggles to get coverage in anything other than a few outlets operating way, way outside the mainstream. I’m giving the LDP more tolerance than it probably deserves by saying that, in seeking what is effectively a mandate to halt further rises in sales taxes, Abe is at least willing to consider following a “deficits don’t matter” policy.
What are the other options being offered to the lucky Japanese voters? Being a sucker for lost causes, I read through the entire manifesto of the Japanese equivalent of the Democrats (the Democratic Party “Minshutō”) and, like the Japanese, went in search of anything resembling a meaningful expression of unconventional or even fresh policies.
The Democratic Party’s manifesto is long on describing the problems facing Japan and criticising Abe’s record (which falls into the “shooting fish in a barrel” category) but is pretty short on explaining what those alternatives might be. I feared when reading some of the text I might end up having to translate the Japanese language equivalent of “hope and change”; luckily I was spared that. When I could find specifics in amongst all the aspirational rhetoric, it was more-or-less the kind of thing that the U.S. Democrats are offering U.S. voters. Problems of inequality and failure by big corporations to do anything other than hoard capital from the rest of the economy are correctly identified. But none of the solutions want to risk frightening any big business horses. If Hillary fails to get nominated as the next Democratic candidate for the 2016 U.S. presidential election, she’d fit right in if she wants to consider a career change and go into Japanese politics.
I did get a glimmer of hope when the manifesto turned to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), but my hope quickly waned as the Democratic Party stopped short of committing to pull out of negotiations with the U.S. Here’s their policy in full on the both the TPP and on trade deals in general:
We will obtain a thorough disclosure of information (about the contents of the potential provisions of any treaty texts), and take a tough stand on the TPP that does not hesitate withdrawal (from negotiations).
· The Democratic Party will promote a high level of international economic partnership and take a leading role in (defining) the world’s (trade) rules.
· For the TPP specifically, we will act in Japan’s national interest on the exclusion of the five most important areas for Japan which are covered by the treaty. We will not hesitate to withdraw (from the TPP negotiations) and take a tough negotiating stance when it comes to negotiating matters of agriculture, forestry and fishery products, ensuring food safety, and preserving our system of national health insurance.
·Through the enactment of a “Law to Promote the Freedom of Information”, we would proceed with information disclosure about any Economic Partnership Agreement negotiations.
Clive again: So, if the Democratic Party of Japan does get to form a government (or gets more influence through a sizable minority in the Diet), they say they will protect key elements of Japanese agriculture, industry and the social safety net where healthcare is concerned. Of course, sell-out watchers in both the U.S. and Europe can spot plenty of wriggle room in that manifesto (cough) commitment. “Tough on the U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, tough on the causes of U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman” … ? Hmm. Perhaps. Hardly worth risking holding your breath though for it in Tokyo I don’t think.
And in reality, Abe’s LDP is doing pretty much all of that already, just being a bit more coy about it. Publishing the draft TPP or Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) texts would however be very interesting. The U.S. would be furious I imagine. Which is why I can’t see it happening.
But all in all, it is slim pickings there from Japan’s main opposition party. And it would take a real shock for the Democratic Party to receive an outright majority. What will be interesting is if Abe and the LDP do get returned to form a government whether a new electoral mandate will result in a more thorough ditching of the previous destructive insistence on long-term balanced budgets. Or even overt outright monetisation of the deficit. Far more likely though, to use another feline analogy from Japan, is the next government will continue to act like a “borrowed cat”: Timid and wary in public when it is more worried about who is watching it.