RECENTLY, a tsunami struck Japan that the weathermen did not predict: it was a wave of dissatisfaction and anger that swept the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) out of office and brought to power an untried and untested party.
It is another potent reminder of the political change that is sweeping Asia, a sign that the old compact of middle-class prosperity in exchange for “soft authoritarianism” is on the way out.
The LDP, which has ruled in one way or another for 62 of the past 63 years, was considered the “natural governing party” of Japan. Its electoral successes over the years had turned Japan into a de facto one-party state. One-party rule, however, invariably breeds corruption and complacency.
That is precisely what occurred in Japan.
As the country’s economy stagnated and public debt piled up, the LDP continued with business as usual. Factional bosses, many from long-established political families, continued to wheel and deal and take turns at being prime minister while the country careened from one political scandal to another.
The voters decided that they had had enough. Turning out in record numbers (more than 70% voted), they handed victory on Aug 30 to the inexperienced Democratic Party (DP) under the leadership of Yukio Hatoyama.
The DP captured 308 of the 480 seats in the Diet, the lower house of parliament. The LDP, under the leadership of Prime Minister Taro Aso, managed to win only 119 seats, two-thirds less than before.
For those who know just how cautious and averse to change the Japanese electorate is, the results were nothing less than revolutionary.
The consensus among observers is that Hatoyama will move cautiously in the months ahead as he has to contend with Japan’s powerful and entrenched bureaucracy.
Nevertheless, Hatoyama has promised to reinvigorate the economy at home, introduce comprehensive social programmes and chart a more independent policy course abroad.
During the election campaign, Hatoyama mused about steering Japan closer to Asia while lessening dependence on the United States.
He has also suggested that the presence of US forces in Japan needs to be reviewed, especially with regard to Okinawa.
It would be interesting to see how all this plays out in the months ahead.
Looking at the broader canvas, the Japanese political tsunami speaks of a wider change that is under way in Asia.
Asian electorates are stirring, becoming more sophisticated and willing to take the kind of risks that are always inherent in change. And they are demonstrating that they are capable of making mature choices for themselves and their countries.
In Indonesia, for example, the mainly-Muslim electorate has eschewed religious fanaticism in favour of development and good governance.
In Malaysia, old fears are giving way to a willingness to experiment with new political permutations. In other nations, electorates are straining at the leash, refusing to be treated as children.
Asia’s rulers, long accustomed to hiding behind the façade of “Asian values” to justify their right to rule, will have to contend with this rising expectation for accountability as well as voter insistence on the right to dismiss their governments if they fail to deliver.
Cosmetic changes and mere rhetoric will no longer suffice. And neither will attempts to manipulate religious or ethnic sentiment.
A Japanese voter summed up the mood when he said: “We need to teach politicians to be nervous about us.”
Perhaps the age of “natural governing parties” is now finally coming to an end in Asia.
The new domestic power configurations that elections are throwing up across Asia are far from perfect. Witness the regular brawls in Taiwan’s parliament or the upheavals in the South Korean government or even the missteps of the Selangor state government.
Opposition parties have, after all, lived in the shadow of powerful ruling parties for so long that they have no tradition or experience in running a government.
Of the 308 DP members who were elected recently in Japan, for example, 143 are in parliament for the first time, and only a few of the rest have any Cabinet exposure. They will make mistakes and may even end up imitating the very parties they were elected to replace.
The new governments that are emerging in Asia are often based on coalitions of disaffected groups with different agendas and sometimes opposing demands; finding consensus will not be an easy task.
These coalitions will tend to be unstable, at least in the short term, but hopefully will find their footing if they can hang together long enough.
Nevertheless, it is all part of the process of democratic transformation. Asian electorates, for their part, seem to be willing to live with a level of uncertainty, and even instability, in the hope that it will eventually lead to more accountable and responsive governments.
As a result, parliamentary democracy is strengthening across the region and genuine two-party systems are taking shape. These developments are going to impact Asia in profound ways in the years ahead.