The Other Democratic Party

Posted December 31, 2009

Categories: Articles, Asia

Last November, shortly after Election Day, I met with a legislator from the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). Kuniko Tanioka was in town to see the usual Washington types. But she also wanted a front-row seat to watch Barack Obama’s historic win. After all, Obama was the reason she’d thrown her hat in the ring in the first place. Tanioka, the president of a women’s university in a city between Tokyo and Kyoto, was inspired by Obama’s convention speech in 2004 and his promise of change. If an outsider like Obama could transform American politics, why couldn’t she as an outsider transform Japanese politics?

There was only one problem. Her Democratic Party had never been in power. In fact, only one party has really been in charge of Japan since the end of World War II. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) helped build the world’s No. 2 economy, but it has also imposed a stifling consensus that discouraged public debate and suppressed civil society initiative. As a result, Japanese elections have been about as exciting as watching grass grow.

But yesterday, politics in Japan became a whole lot more interesting when Tanioka’s party captured more than 300 seats in the 480-seat lower house of Japanese parliament. Most pundits have dismissed the vote as simply a protest against the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s ineptitude, the rising unemployment figures, and the indignity of living in a one-party state.

This dismissal obscures the fact that the Democratic Party offers a dramatically different platform. Party leader Yukio Hatoyama recently delivered a stinging attack on “market fundamentalism.” Instead of this “U.S.-led” approach, he argued that “we must work on policies that regenerate the ties that bring people together, that take greater account of nature and the environment, that rebuild welfare and medical systems, that provide better education and child-rearing support, and that address wealth disparities.” Japan might become the first country to implement a serious, post-meltdown economic policy that will humanize globalization and drive a stake through casino capitalism — in a way that Obama, beholden to the Wall Street interests that helped put him in office, has never promised to do.

Hatoyama also envisions a new foreign policy for Japan. “Regionally, the Democratic Party would likely guide Japan toward better relations with China,” I write in Revolution in Japan. “Hatoyama has also vowed not to visit Yasukuni shrine as long as it continues to house the spirits of Japanese war criminals. This could lead to an upturn in Japan-South Korean relations as well.”

But the burning question for Washington is the future of U.S.-Japanese relations. The DPJ has never been enthusiastic about Japan serving as a handmaiden to U.S. military operations. Hatoyama has called for a more equal relationship with Washington. This rhetoric might simply translate into a demand that the United States pay more for stationing troops in Japan. Or the DPJ implement a much more Asia-centric, multilateral, diplomacy-rich approach that kicks U.S. troops out of Okinawa (and perhaps the Japanese mainland as well), ends all support for U.S. military operations in the Middle East and in Asia, and fundamentally recasts the bilateral Status of Forces Agreement.

Many observers in the United States are quick to assert that the alliance with Japan will survive intact. “Some worry that a DPJ government may undermine the U.S.-Japanese security alliance,” writes Dan Sneider, but the party leaders are “deeply committed to a strong relationship, even if they take a different path now and then.” Although he acknowledges the potential challenge to the alliance, the Heritage Foundation’s Bruce Klingner argues that “Washington can take some comfort from knowing that dire predictions of a dramatic leftward lurch in Japan are wrong.” Both liberals and conservatives note that Hatoyama and other party leaders seem to have backtracked on some of their more independent pronouncements as the elections loomed.

But perhaps Hatoyama is simply being tactical. He saw what happened to Roh Moo-Hyun after the South Korean leader announced a similar call for a more equal relationship with Washington. The Bush administration savaged Roh, and former Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld in particular seemed to take pleasure in twisting the arms of his South Korean counterparts. Hatoyama and the DPJ would be wise to make all the right noises and yet, at a policy level, effect foreign policy change that the Japanese (and Asians in general) can truly believe in. The Japanese revolutionaries who engineered the DPJ’s electoral victory, like Kuniko Tanioka, will accept nothing less.

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan

If the Japanese elections were a healthy upending of the status quo, the Afghan elections were a sad example of business as usual. There was low turnout, hundreds of fraud allegations, and many examples of election-related violence. Afghan president Hamid Karzai, reports NPR, “allegedly used government institutions, such as the election commission, and his supporters to inflate the voter turnout and the pro-Karzai vote in the southern and eastern provinces, which are his main constituencies. While observers are suggesting that the voter turnout was only around 10% in these provinces, the government suggests that it was a staggering 50-70%.” Karzai is still in the lead, with about a third of the vote counted, but he hasn’t secured enough votes to win in the first round.

Electoral improprieties aside, it doesn’t look as though much will change in Afghanistan. “In his attempt to define ‘success’ in Afghanistan during a panel in Washington D.C. on August 12 Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, remarked: ‘We’ll know it when we see it,’” writes Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Farrah Hassen in Elections Unlikely Barometer for Change in Afghanistan. “That’s not a reassuring response for Afghans who have watched their country descend into chaos, for those who have been directly impacted by U.S. drones, or for young women who remain afraid to attend school in the midst of increasing violence. This election won’t change reality.”

The Obama administration has to change its bullets and ballots approach to Afghanistan, FPIF columnist Frida Berrigan argues. “Empty ballot boxes (or even full ones) will not make peace,” she writes in Afghanistan: War Trumps Elections. “Nor will purple fingers and billions of dollars in economic assistance. But real negotiations with real opportunities offer that possibility. The fighting has gone on long enough. It’s time to sit down and negotiate an end to the war that Bush started and Obama has inherited.”

The Iranian Struggle Continues

In late July, a group of Iranians gathered to protest the theft of their elections. The crowd swelled to several hundred. “Some wore black T-shirts with a blood-spattered slogan: ‘Where Is My VOTE?’” writes FPIF contributor Max Burns in The Iranian Opposition’s Second Life. “One woman arrived wearing little more than a thong swimsuit and a pair of purple angel wings. Iran’s security forces, however, were absent. In a nation with a frighteningly effective intelligence service, Supreme Leader Khamenei was entirely unaware of this protest because it took place in cyberspace.”

The opposition continues not only in the virtual worlds of Second Life, but also in lines of poetry that appear side by side, like arms outstretched in protest. FPIF contributors Persis Karim, Sholeh Wolpé, and Roger Sedarat all provide Poems Against the Regime.

Our final Fiesta! contribution for this week is an interview by FPIF contributor Niels van Tomme with Bosnian artist Damir Niksic, who specializes in giving voice to the voiceless. “Somebody has to be a loser in order for others to do well,” he says in The European Loser. “Today it’s not the proletariat, a social class within the nation. It is ‘the other,’ the immigrants from Asia, Africa, from other parts of Europe, East or South. In some way I feel very close to all of these groups. I’m a Slavic-speaking Muslim from the Balkans, from Southeastern Europe, so I can identify with all these people. I studied in the United States, I hold an MFA and MA in art history but I’m profiled, or classified, according to old European stereotypes and expected to learn my place in society.”

Multilateralism Watch

The world has been waiting a long time for UN 2.0. For better or worse, the United Nations looks much as it did when it was created after World War II.

“Reform of the UN Security Council, under ‘open-ended’ negotiation for almost 20 years, isn’t an issue to stir the masses,” writes FPIF senior analyst Ian Williams in UN Reform: Don’t Hold Your Breath. “Those members of the global public who care about the UN at all are more likely to worry about the efficiency of the Council than its composition. However, in the diplomatic community the issue is about prestige and increasing the chances of smaller powers to get a seat at the top table.”

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is also trying to reinvent itself. In the wake of the economic crisis, richer countries have pumped $100 billion into the IMF to hand out to the needy. The money will come in the form of Special Drawing Rights (SDR), a kind of additional currency issued to IMF members.

“In recent weeks, it has emerged that the IMF will likely propose that wealthy countries transfer their SDRs — not to countries in need, but to the IMF itself, which would then loan the resources to low-income countries, with their usual slate of conditions,” writes FPIF contributor Soren Ambrose in Multilateral Money. “This would be an unfortunate way of converting SDRs from unconditioned, cheap resources to conditioned loans. The proposal would allow donor governments to be seen as generous even as they increase the power of the IMF over developing country economies. If it goes forward, it seems likely that a way to deal with the issue of the costs associated with SDRs will be found; advocates should insist that any such method instead be applied to straightforward country-to-country transfers.”

Finally, we have a Postcard from…Damascus from FPIF contributor Thomas James, who reports from an Iraqi refugee camp in Syria. “Next door in Iraq, the talk has been of recovery and resurgence,” he writes. “But there is a feeling that the Iraqi government, awash in oil receipts, is not doing enough to help its displaced nationals. The figures for returning Iraqis are low and huge swaths of Iraq’s middle class, vital for the rebuilding of the country, remain in Syria and Jordan, many intent on resettlement to Europe or America. Yet resettlement numbers are also very low. Only around 12,000 people have been resettled since 2007. With funds running out and Iraq too dangerous to return to, the refugee population is becoming increasingly desperate.”

Notes on a Satire

Occasionally, to keep things lively here at FPIF, I’ll pen a foreign policy satire for the introductory essay of this publication, World Beat. Last week’s piece Chinese Assassination Squads, written in the voice of a CIA operative, was meant to underscore the amorality of CIA policy and the absurdity of outsourcing, not to mention the pervasiveness of anti-Chinese sentiment among our foreign policy hands. Several readers wrote back approvingly of the satire. Several others saw little humor or utility in the enterprise. The tradition of foreign policy satire is a noble one, stretching from Jon Swift to Jon Stewart. Whether or not my attempts are a fitting addition to this tradition, I’ll continue to champion narrative diversity here at FPIF. If nothing else, they generate letters from you, the readers, and it’s always nice to hear from you!

FPIF, September 1, 2009

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