There are always lessons in other countries’ elections and, in an ever more interdependent world, there are consequences for all of us when one of the major powers changes government. We may not know it from the paucity of coverage and debate of the Japanese elections, but Japan is one such power. Were it not so far away, with language and systems known to so few outside Japan, we might take a bit more interest. We certainly should, and not just we still like buying their gadgets.
For Labour, the obvious claim to make is that it shows in times of economic crisis, the public will steer leftwards to a Party that wants to invest for the future by spending more on education and childcare, and wants to put more power in the hands of people.
For the Tories, they will be pointing out that the new Japanese government has promised to fund new spending programmes by cutting old ones, and hoping that it shows what happens to governments in power for a long time.
Not that either British party has ever been in power for as long as Japan’s Liberal Democrats (this is confusing because their nearest UK equivalent is the Tories) who have ruled for all but eleven months of the last 55 years. So with the Opposition Democratic Party of Japan seemingly on course to take more than 300 of the 480 seats in the lower house, this is a rout even beyond the one I witnessed when Chelsea beat Burnley at Stamford Bridge yesterday.
Yukio Hatoyama will now become the latest Japanese Prime Minister to be not terribly well known in the West. Yet the political classes in the West will be taking a very close interest, not least in the States, because he signalled very clearly in his campaign that he intended to shift Japan’s foreign policy away from positions he views as being too slavishly pro-American. This may seem odd, George Bush having been replaced by the more internationalist Barack Obama, but if followed through could have significant fall-out.
He has even promised a review of aspects of the security relationship with the US, in the interests of pursuing more productive relations with Japan’s Asian neighbours. And even though in all countries, sometimes campaign rhetoric gets ahead of what an elected government might actually do, Hatoyama’s talk of ending the ‘worship’ of the US, and his predictions of an end to American dominance in the world, makes him an interesting new figure at diplomacy’s top tables.
Political leaders will also be fascinated to see how and whether he manages to deliver on his stated aim of loosening the grip of government bureaucrats who have far more power and influence than civil servants in most democracies.
Of course he will need many of those bureaucrats to help him implement the policies on which he has been elected. But one of his first tasks will be to insert elected politicians into positions of authority currently occupied by bureaucrats. If the Japanese civil servants I occasionally had to deal with are anything to go by, it could make the overblown UK controversy over the politicisation of the civil service look very tame indeed.