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The result of the election on July 11th,in which the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) lost control of the upper house of Japans Diet (parliament),is awful news not just for the prime minister,Naoto Kan,and his party. On the face of it,it is awful news for Japan as well. Mr Kan faces the prospect of being unable to get anything done. After years of economic stagnation,it is tempting to conclude from yet another political failure that Japan is truly ungovernable. But at a deeper level,the vote also suggests that Japan is changing for the better.
After last Augusts optimism the mood is black. Back then voters made history in a general election that kicked out the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Its last,painful years in office had been marked by sleaze,ineptitude and political gridlock. Less than a year later,when both jobs and social protection are inadequate and the national debt is soaring,the DPJ has itself been tainted by sleaze; in office it has proven inept; and the election result threatens renewed gridlock.
For Mr Kan the vote is a huge setback. He came to office only six weeks ago,offering hope. The straight-talking man of the people seemed everything that his predecessor,the first DPJ prime minister,was not. Yukio Hatoyama,rich,quixotic and indecisive,had met his end picking a needless fight with the United States over the relocation of a military base on Okinawa and then flip-flopping over how to resolve it. When he went,so too did Ichiro Ozawa,the partys shadow shogun. Mr Ozawa subjugated policy and principle to winning elections with pork and deficit spending. His style closely resembled the old LDP which the DPJ had set itself against,and with both men gone,support for the DPJ grew.
Then Mr Kan blew it. His proposal to double the consumption tax in order to plug the national finances before Japan became another Greece was meant to sound like responsible politics. But the proposal looked as if it had been scribbled on the back of an envelope. And when a hostile media asked what effect more taxes would have on jobs and growth,Mr Kan flipped and flopped,Hatoyama-style.
Behind the rice-paper screen
Mr Kans future,and the DPJs,is now in doubt. Some predict the return of Mr Ozawas malign influence,his anti-Kan sniping vindicated. Thankfully that is unlikely and not just because of Mr Ozawas reputation. The opposition will also exploit suspicions over his use of party funds. Others may challenge Mr Kan for the DPJ leadership in September. If so,Japans sixth prime minister in four years might go first.
In the short run,all this is bad news,particularly if the DPJ draws the wrong lesson and shelves discussion of a consumption tax. Amid the rubble of the DPJs defeat,however,voters sent encouraging signals. Reformers should seize on them.
For one thing,although LDPs gains have cheered the old guard,the success is deceptive. It came in the LDPs traditional strongholds: the depopulated rural districts with a disproportionate share of the seats. When you look at votes for the seats allocated on the basis of proportional representation,the LDPs national share,at just 24% of the total,extended a long decline. This was no turnaround for the dinosaur party.
Second,the DPJ flopped mainly because candidates backing better government and pro-market growth did especially well. The sparkling performer was Your Party,which champions the kind of reforms associated with Junichiro Koizumi,swashbuckling LDP prime minister in 2001-06. Moreover some of the LDPs gains were made by notable followers of Mr Koizumi. The leaderships of both main parties have denigrated the Koizumi legacy for too long.
Third,in spite of their amazing fickleness in recent elections,voters have each time swung towards parties holding out the promise of reform. And each time they have then punished those who came to power and failed to deliver. The gap between peoples expectations and the ability of the political system to meet them is wide. The old political order is in ruins. The new one is a shambles,but it is inching towards something better. Elections give voters the chance to prod it in the right direction.
Eventually,this should lead to a less dysfunctional political class that is able to address Japans difficulties. Mr Kan can play his part,by using this summers leadership contest to move his party towards the reformist centre,where it has most chance of finding common cause with the opposition.
If Mr Kan cannot manage this,it would be better to call a snap general election. That would put the whole question back to the voters who seem to understand what Japan needs rather better than the people who govern them.