Hours after leading his Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) to a historic election victory, Ichiro Ozawa was nowhere to be seen. As the results rolled in the evening of July 29, tallying up the rising number of DPJ winners in Upper House races, Ozawa didn't appear at party headquarters, didn't speak to reporters, didn't even poke his head out to wave to his supporters. The official explanation was that the 65-year-old Ozawa a former smoker who suffers from heart problems was recovering from exhaustion after weeks of nonstop campaigning. It wasn't until nearly two days after the greatest triumph of his career that he finally resurfaced.
Ozawa's no-show aptly symbolizes the anticlimactic letdown that Japan and the DPJ is experiencing after an extraordinary parliamentary election. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, suffered the worst defeat in its 52-year history. Meanwhile, by taking 60 out of 121 seats up for grabs, the DPJ became the first opposition party to control the Upper House. The results seem to suggest that, after decades as a virtual single-party state, Japan has finally produced a viable opposition and a true two-party democracy, creating an environment where backroom politics would fade and voters would be able to choose between meaningful alternatives at the polls.
But it's not that simple. While the public clearly voted against the unpopular Abe, it's far from obvious what or whom they voted for. The DPJ's success is tenuous, and its approval ratings remain barely higher than that of the scandal-ridden LDP. The public "did not say yes to the DPJ," said Gerald Curtis, a Japanese-politics expert at Columbia University. "They voted against Prime Minister Abe, to get Abe out of office."
Even that doesn't seem likely to happen soon. Abe is reshuffling his Cabinet, but he says he has no intention of stepping down himself, and no one within the LDP has the stomach to launch a coup. But while he grimly holds on and the LDP squabbles over its future, the DPJ faces urgent problems of its own. Though it now holds the Upper House, the ruling coalition of the LDP and New Komeito maintain a majority in the more powerful Lower House, which will continue at least until elections in September 2009. DPJ officials have said they'll try to pressure Abe into calling snap elections, but there's no way of forcing one short of blocking all legislation and turning the Diet into a Tokyo traffic jam.
That would be a mistake for a party that has yet to earn the full trust of many Japanese. A welded-together assortment of disparate ideologies, the DPJ can barely agree with itself, let alone present a coherent platform to voters. Once the standard-bearer for young urbanites and reform, under Ozawa the party has styled itself as a defender of rural Japan, promising subsidies and protectionism for farmers. That was a winning strategy in the July 29 election, the DPJ swept the countryside, once an LDP stronghold but it contradicts the beliefs of reform-oriented DPJ members. The party is riddled with such fractures, and many members resent Ozawa, who isn't nicknamed "The Destroyer" because he plays well with others. Ironically, the stress of coping with victory could tear the party apart as competing factions maneuver for newfound power. "I don't think the DPJ can survive this win," says Robert Feldman, chief Japan economist for Morgan Stanley.
If the party self-destructs, politicians will have lost a golden opportunity and so will have Japan. Throughout most of the postwar era, entrenched bureaucrats and the LDP élite plotted the course of the country through backroom deals and alliances. But in recent years the country's political landscape has begun to change, thanks largely to the dynamic style of Abe's predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, who bypassed the old guard and took his case for reform directly to the voters. That was progress, but what's still missing is an alternative to the LDP, something that is needed even more now that the ruling coalition is in danger of unraveling.
The DPJ has proven it can fight and win an election. Now it must prove it can govern. "Unless the DPJ truly organizes itself as a functional political party, it'll be a repeat of their last Upper House victory, which was followed by a loss," says Jun Iio of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies. Instead of simply shutting down the government in an effort to force Abe out, the DPJ should relax its rhetoric and let the Prime Minister continue to hang himself. They can earn public trust by forging alliances with sympathetic LDP members to set an agenda that responds to the economic concerns of ordinary voters. It won't be easy given its internal divisions. But if the DPJ can pull that off, it can go from being the party of protest to one of power and Japan could become truly democratic.