How Did the LDP Hold On So Long?

It's hard to overstate the changes that have swept the world in the past two decades. Empires have crumbled, genocides have been committed, stunning reconciliations have been reached, and markets have melted.

And then there's Japan. Like much of the world, Japan has been rocked by major changes. Its once unstoppable economy has stalled; real GDP growth has been negligible since 1991; the country's social contract with workers has been violated; record numbers of women have begun refusing to marry or have children; social inequality and suicide are at record levels. Such problems would have produced a revolution—at least at the ballot box—in most places. Yet in Japan, the same tired gang of politicians and their offspring have maintained an iron grip on power.

Until now. On Aug. 30 the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) looks set to finally wrench control from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has ruled virtually uninterrupted since 1955. After so many years of failure, the key question is: what took so long?

For starters, it's important to remember that LDP rule hasn't been all bad. During the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, the conservative Liberal Democrats conspired with big business, small agriculture, and an elite bureaucracy to steer Japan toward stability and prosperity. Each time their power was challenged, LDP leaders co-opted opposition policies and blithely continued on their collusive way. The LDP also had the good sense to take a cheap ride on U.S. security guarantees, which provided low-cost protection in a dangerous neighborhood. And as part of the tacit Cold War deal, Japan reaped another benefit from providing bases to U.S. troops: access to U.S. markets and technology. Japan got rich without having to get too strong.

It's also overstating things to say that Japan's politics never changed. At the end of the Cold War, the LDP and other parties fragmented and coalition governments briefly became the norm. A strange anti-LDP seven-party coalition even managed to take power for a few months. Though the LDP quickly recaptured the reins, the shakeup led to the rise of Junichiro Koizumi, who extended the LDP's tenure through the first half of this decade by appealing directly to Japanese voters and running against the party—or at least the hacks who had come to dominate its chambers.

But Koizumi retired in 2006, and the hacks returned. Without his hand on the tiller, the party floundered, despite the enormous challenges facing Japan. The post-bubble economy continued to sputter. Industrial policy worked, and then it didn't. Public debt grew to dizzying levels, but moves toward fiscal responsibility were endlessly deferred and neoliberal reforms remained unpopular. Japan is getting older and losing population faster than any other country in the world, yet immigration policy has remained less than an afterthought.

Of course, Japan is a democracy, so the blame for these failures ultimately rests with the electorate, which always let the LDP convince it that there was no other party able to run Japan and its foreign affairs effectively. Over and over, the public fell for the LDP's promises—until today, when voters' patience seems finally to have run out.

Will the opposition now do any better? To get elected, the DPJ has promised large child-care allowances, greater local political autonomy, pension and health-care reform, and tax breaks for small businesses—all the things that voters crave. But the party has provided no details, especially on how it's going to pay for all this. An even bigger challenge will be the looming confrontation with Japan's extremely powerful bureaucracy. If the DPJ really wants to seize control of public policy, it will have to wrestle down this elite of elites and clear it of LDP sympathizers. Voters will be treated to a grand political sumo match, but the odds are long that the DPJ will manage to body-slam the mandarins.

In foreign affairs, the DPJ has promised a balanced, Goldilocks approach. On the one hand, it's likely to continue to depend on and welcome U.S. security guarantees. On the other, it has said it'll reconsider how closely it hugs Uncle Sam. The DPJ worries about getting entangled in U.S. adventures such as Afghanistan. Calling for a more equal and "mature" alliance, it aims to strike a better balance between its economic interests in Asia and in the United States. Its goal is to hover neither too close to nor too far from both a declining America and a rising China. That will be a delicate trick to pull off. But succeed or fail, perhaps the best thing that can be said is that the DPJ represents something new. Japanese politics seems to have finally caught up with the rest of the world. Change has come at last.