At his back Taro Aso had some disastrous results from Tokyos metropolitan elections on July 12th,in which control of the capital passed from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) after 40 years. In front was a growing rebellion within the LDP against his leadership. So the prime minister pressed the nuclear button. This week he declared that he would dissolve the Diet,Japans parliament,and lead the ruling coalition into a general election on August 30th.
Bitter colleagues accuse the prime minister of putting pride above the LDPs interests. They want a fresh face to contest the election; but even if they get one the party is almost certain to lose its post-war near-monopoly on power. Many Japanese people regard that prospect with either scepticism or anxiety,but it is the best thing that could happen to the country.
Mr Asos standing is at rock-bottom. His tough talk comes across as arrogance,and it cannot hide his own lack of authority within the partys ranks. A bungled cabinet reshuffle is only the latest example of his impotence. He has failed to reassure voters about the economy,which is running fully 10% below its potential. Fears are growing over the states ability to meet the welfare needs of an ageing,shrinking population.
For all his mistakes,Mr Aso is only a symptom of the partys steep decline. He is the fourth prime minister in as many years. The LDP has come to the end of the line. It has no ideas,no cohesion and is covered in sleaze. Fathers hand down seats like family heirlooms. Policy is secondary to plotting.
Japans voters,who are guilty of having put up with this for far too long,at last seem to have had enough. Opinion polls suggest a landslide defeat for the LDP at the hands of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). Even if economic recovery now gathers pace,the LDP is unlikely to be spared. Having rotted from within,it does not deserve to be.
But many voters are sceptical that change is really coming. That is understandable. The 54-year-old LDPs obituary has been written many times,and the corpse has always revived. In 1993 it actually lost power,but within 11 months it was back. Again,before the 2005 election,it seemed to be in trouble,but the then prime minister,Junichiro Koizumi,somehow convinced voters that to vote for him was to vote against everything scuzzy in his own party. The showmans sleight of hand won the LDP coalition a stunning victory. However,today,given the governments dismal performance over the past four years,voters will surely not be dazzled by the same trick again. Besides,no one of anything like Mr Koizumis calibre is in sight.
Those who believe change is coming are anxiouswith good reason. Although the DPJ looks more like a real opposition than seemed possible a decade ago,it is an unlikely mix of socialists and former LDP hands without an identity or a coherent agenda. It has declared war on a discredited bureaucracy without acknowledging the need to harness bureaucratic energies to new policies. It slams Mr Asos stimulus packages for adding to Japans debt,yet its own proposals would probably add more.
Bring on confusion
And yet Japan needs the DPJ,for all its imperfections. That is because,even though the opposition cannot yet offer a convincing vision,it can at least offer the country two things that are long overdue.
The first is a fresh framework for government. The legacy of the LDPs one-party state is that policy and legislation pass in parallel through both government and party. Good policies (even the LDP had some) were often stymied by party barons with vested interests. Prime ministers since Mr Koizumi have tried to centralise authority within the cabinet office and pretty much failed. With its tighter party discipline,the DPJ can establish a mechanism that gives good policy a chance of becoming law.
The second thing Japan needs is for parties to alternate in power. That has never happened in Japanese post-war politics. The very fact of the DPJs victory will create an incentive for parties to produce some attractive policies,in order to persuade the electorate to vote for them. That way,Japan might actually get some decent government.
If the DPJ,with its weak programme,comes to power,it may well not stay there for very long. And,as reformists leave the LDP in droves,Japanese politics will enter a difficult time. Uncertainty will spread to the countrys foreign policy,including its alliance with the United States. But uncertainty beats the LDPs palsied monopoly.
The election campaign due to be launched next week is the first step on the path to renewal. And if it obliges voters to confront the shortcomings in their politics,thats just as well.
© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2009