Friday, April 22, 2011

Opinion Polls

I've been pushing this text around for a week or more; it's still too wordy by far but it has resisted all my attempts to tighten it up properly. Better post it now than push it around my plate for another week or more.

The latest polls for the Kan administration are out. They're disastrous. This is not exactly a surprise. His government has been indecisive and wavering, and an earthquake and tsunami of historical magnitude with a nuclear breakdown as a chaser doesn't help. After only ten months in office , there's mounting calls for him to step down. Take a look at this figure:

Approval ratings

Approval ratings over time.

Notice a trend? Japan has seen its share of less than amazingly competent prime ministers lately - neither Abe nor Hatoyama will ever grace any political top-ten list - but there's something more to this. One or two dud leaders is normal. Five leaders in a row is not1. The leaders range from the muscular nationalist right (Abe) to moderate, almost social democratic center (Kan). Would you believe the next PM - whoever it is - will avoid the same fate?

I don't think so. People who become prime ministers aren't stupid or devoid of talent, by and large. They need plenty of skills and political savvy to ever get into contention in the first place2. But in Japan, at this point, you could elect the genetically cloned love-child of Mahatma Gandhi, Machiavelli and Julius Caesar, and they'd crash and burn at the polls within six month of assuming the Japanese premiership.

I find it frightening that Japanese governments are so weak that opinion polls can actually topple them. I find it strange than nobody else seems to think it is. Think about it - they're media polls. They're not votes and have no legal force. They're anything but impartial; you can get wildly different results depending on who you ask, and how you ask them. It's no surprise that conservative media polls find support for conservative causes, progressive polls find support for progressive causes, and liberal polls for liberal causes.

A government could just shrug and ignore them. And yet, this agenda-driven competition for whoever screams the loudest - a mass media version of extremist gangs roaming the streets, fighting each other - is allowed to set the agenda and to save or topple elected officials. That is frightening. It is mob rule through media.

I don't know what other countries regularly allow a sitting government to topple - not just call an election, but actually remove the sitting prime minister - simply because opinion polls look bad. If anything, the ruling party would normally circle the wagons and protect their leader - and their handle on power - and take a bet that they'll improve things in time for the next election.

But the major Japanese parties aren't really parties in the normal sense. They don't have a unifying ideology or commonality of purpose. They're more like electoral umbrella organizations that lets its members collect contributions and campaign under one name. Both the DPJ and the LDP house wildly divergent political groups within their ranks. The Ozawa group and the Kan group within the DPJ, for instance, have less in common than either have with similar groups in the opposition parties. They're really separate parties in all but name.

So when Kan gets into trouble with the opinion polls, the reaction of the Ozawa faction is not to help and support the party standard bearer. They don't see one of their own under attack; they see a political enemy weakened and will try to use it to bring him down. A Kan government is not "their" government, despite having the same party label, and they see themselves as being in opposition to it. That both groups happen to belong to the DPJ is irrelevant. The same goes for other factions of course, in LDP and DPJ alike.

But why are polls so dismally low? And why are no parties benefiting from this discontent? A recurring refrain from opinion polls is that the government - whoever it is - is passive and unable to to take decisive action to resolve important problems. There is a well-founded belief that the government is sitting on its hands while problems grow worse over time. The opposition is hurt by this too; the public doesn't believe they'll do any better.

The problem is that taking decisive action means making impopular decisions. The current system makes it all but impossible.

Any impopular decision will have an effect in the polls. If it hits a particular group or industry you'll lose their donations and their campaign assistance, and so you'll lose the support of party members that represent them. The parties are weak, with little leverage over their members, and parliamentarians are dependent on outside help to win or retain their seats. They have plenty to gain and little to lose by helping a donor against the wishes of their party.

The unelected, unaccountable state bureaucracy is as powerful as the elected government; the administration may propose a new directive, but if the ministries are opposed it won't ever get implemented. Many ministries are very close to the industry, such as agriculture, energy and construction, that they're supposed to regulate. Senior administrators get an exit and pension plan through amakudari, and in return the ministries work as protectors as much as regulators. Any adverse legislation, such as deregulation of the agricultural sector or tightening safety rules, are fiercely opposed by the ministries. Most administrations have tried to weaken those cosy ties by abolishing amakudari, but as the ministries oppose it that has proven impossible as well.

The administration, the elected parties and the bureaucracy are the three main actors, all with more or less divergent interests. And in Japan, the administration is the weakest of those three. Which means any decision has to find favour with all three entities, with public opinion and with industry interests. This effectively means that impopular or painful decisions can not be made, no matter how necessary, no matter how beneficial they may be further down the road.

Replacing Kan as prime minister will not change anything. Replacing DPJ with LDP - or with Minna no To or any other party - will not change anything either. And every failed administration will weaken the power base for the next administration in turn.

This deadlock is unsustainable. So what will break it? I have no idea. And I suspect I won't like the answer when we find out.


#1 Koizumi, before Abe, was exceptional, with a rare gift for public relations, but also lucky to have a captive party and a period of economic recovery. Previous PMs, such as Mori, reverted to similar trends we see here. I decided to look at just the last five as they're all of the same generation and worked in a similar political and economic climate, and comparable polling data becomes difficult to find for much earlier administrations.

#2 Abe and Hatoyama were chosen largely for who they are, not for any ability of their own. Abe was the compromise candidate, with an impeccable family background and with solid support from an important right-wing faction within the LDP. Hatoyama was elected party leader, not prime minister. He is a founder of and basically paid for the establishment of the DPJ, so there was a sense that he'd earned a shot as party leader.

1 comment:


    p.6 article by Maeda Yukio is emblematic of this obsession but also offers a few other explanations for the last few PMs dwindling support.


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