Japan went to the polls on December 16th, electing a new government for the first time in four years. The people of Japan have been waiting for this day since September, when Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda announced that a dissolution of parliament was necessary with no end in sight to the deadlock over fiscal policy. Since then, Japan has been in a state of paralysis.
By the time Shinzo Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party swept back into power with a solid majority there had been no budget passed for two years. With an election looming, Noda had created a Diet compliant with his agenda, but when that failed to pass it became clear that a new approach was needed. The LDP, the only party with enough Diet members to form a majority government, made it clear from the beginning that they would not be passing any budget unless it included a 2% inflation target as well as an extension of Japan’s sales tax. In effect, this meant Noda had been successful in creating a compliant Diet, but had failed on the prime objective of his administration.
Noda has been blamed for his failure to pass a budget, mostly because he is not seen as being decisive enough in leading the government. But it’s important to realise that while Noda may have moved towards creating a compliant parliament, he could not have achieved this alone. An agreement to work together had already been made with the opposition, and in particular with the LDP. That agreement was that without a figurehead, there would be no government at all. Noda did his part by nominating a candidate for prime minister: His own finance minister Yoshihiko Nadao, who was duly dismissed by the LDP. In Japan, the cabinet must be approved by the Diet in order to go into power. If it is not, then lawmakers cannot pass laws that require its implementation; they can’t even begin to discuss them.
Noda’s mistake may have been trying to lift his finance minister above party politics in an attempt at solidarity with opposition parties. This was likely to antagonise his own party, the Democratic Party of Japan, whose coalition with the communists – seen as a necessity in a country where a single-seat majority is not possible – would have been broken by Noda’s nomination. In reality, this was probably an oversight on Noda’s part; he didn’t think about the coalition. He failed to see that the opposition parties needed just as much reassurance as his own party that they would be able to work together effectively before an accord could be reached.
No one was democratically elected to establish this system, it simply exists. It is not unusual for Japanese politicians to form alliances with people they wouldn’t even consider talking to under normal circumstances. The bonds they form are not exactly the same as those that would exist had there been an election; it’s more like a gentlemen’s agreement. Still, without this system of agreed non-aggression, Japan could find itself in the dangerous position of having several parties vying for power. It is thanks to these gentlemanly alliances that Japan manages to avoid the constant state of elections that other democratic nations have learned to accept.
Beyond these agreements, however, there is nothing concrete about this system. In fact, Noda did get a budget passed just before parliament dissolved. It was an election promise and its content could be considered to go against the interests of several parties that have been cooperating with Noda, including the communists. The LDP have been particularly vocal in their criticism of this budget, so it would be incorrect to suggest that they simply refused a budget because they found a small part objectionable. It’s about keeping face – being seen as consistent and principled – which is what all these gentlemen agreements are based on.