- The Washington Times - Friday, September 12, 2008

TOKYO — In the past 20 years, Japan has had 13 prime ministers. In a pattern rarely seen outside the communist world, individual leaders have come and gone, but the ruling party has remained the same.

Now, Japan is once again looking for a leader, its third in two years. But this time, the party could be in trouble, too.

Unable to deal with inconclusive battles in parliament, chronically low support ratings and repeated beatings from a surging opposition, Japan’s last two prime ministers have simply thrown in the towel - raising questions about whether Japan’s long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) still has the stomach for leadership.

“They have lost the trust of the nation,” said Tomoaki Iwai, a political science professor at Tokyo’s Nihon University. “I don’t think I have ever seen the Liberal Democrats in as deep trouble as they are in now. The feeling that it is time for a change in government is stronger than ever before.”

The Liberal Democrats has been one of the most successful parties in modern history.

The party governed Japan throughout virtually all of the post-World War II period - missing out on only one 10-month period since 1955 - and supervised Japan’s rise from the devastation of war and occupation to its current status as the world’s second-largest economy.

But the Liberal Democrats’ own sense of urgency runs deep.

“If we don’t do anything … the Liberal Democratic Party will perish,” Kaoru Yosano, a party veteran and one of the leading candidates to replace Yasuo Fukuda, said this week. “We are facing a crisis that brings into question our very existence.”

Mr. Yosano’s comments underscore a growing malaise within the party and frustration among voters, who increasingly see the Liberal Democrats as incapable of dealing with pressing issues such as rising gasoline and food prices and an underfunded and mismanaged pension system.

The manner in which the past two leaders quit has been particularly striking.

In stepping down last week, Mr. Fukuda, unapologetically, said he had enough bickering with the opposition, which has used its majority in the less powerful upper house of parliament to block or stall most of the legislation backed by the ruling party. Mr. Fukuda was widely panned as irresponsible and selfish by the media and has pointedly made no public comments since.

The Liberal Democrats have moved fast to ward off criticism that Mr. Fukuda’s decision was a sign of confusion or disarray. Within days of the announcement, the party had set elections to replace him. They will be held on Sept. 22, and five ruling party members are running.

Mr. Fukuda’s predecessor, Shinzo Abe, also resigned suddenly, claiming physical problems brought about by the stress of the job, which he held for less than a year. Mr. Fukuda and Mr. Abe both suffered from low public support ratings - largely because they were seen as ineffective.

For decades, the person in charge didn’t make that much difference.

It was the party that ruled, with platform and ideology shaped through consensus. It used its numbers in parliament and clout with the voters, big business and other special interests to sustain its power while the most influential members would field subordinates for the party presidency and pull the strings from the sidelines, under less scrutiny.

Those days appear to be over.

Junichiro Koizumi, in office before Mr. Abe, stayed in power for five years and put his personal stamp on the job. He was an exception in that he doggedly pursued several issues - including the privatization of the postal system - and worked to declaw the powerful factions that had hitherto controlled party objectives and personnel selections.

But since Mr. Koizumi was in power, the party has weakened to the point that it no longer has kingmakers or backroom barons of the stature of those in the past.

“The party members are now thinking more of their own interests and are less inclined to fall in line behind the prime minister,” Mr. Iwai said. “They are far less organized than they used to be, and they are out of touch with their usual bases of support.”

Voters now also have an increasingly viable alternative in the Democratic Party of Japan (DJP), which, while stridently critical of the LDP, is centrist and, unlike the communists or socialists, reassuringly familiar. Many of its leaders are, in fact, former ruling party renegades who helped briefly oust the LDP from power in 1993.

Headed by former LDP powerbroker Ichiro Ozawa, the Democrats are already looking beyond the naming of Mr. Fukuda’s successor toward general elections, which are expected to be held before the year is over.

The Liberal Democrats lead in most polls, but analysts are split over whether the party will gain or lose ground when it comes down to battles for individual seats and are even more uncertain about whether the LDP will ever return to its previous position of strength.

The emboldened Democrats, meanwhile, are turning up their rhetoric.

“Two LDP prime ministers in succession have suddenly walked away from their office, exposing the LDP’s inability to govern,” said Democratic Party Secretary-General Yukio Hatoyama. “Whether Mr. Fukuda is prime minister, or whether one of his followers takes over the post, the DPJ still believes resolutely that the [ruling party and its coalition partner have] run out of ideas.”

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