Little more than a year ago, the people of Japan were deciding who would lead them. Finally they had a choice, and a proper manifesto of political pledges to go with it. Now those people have been disenfranchised by a bickering Democratic Party of Japan that will decide by itself who will lead Japan as it tries to figure out whether it actually stands for that manifesto at all.
The choice is between squeaky clean Prime Minister Naoto Kan and wily political mastermind Ichiro Ozawa. On one level it’s a choice between a transparent DPJ that wants to clean politics up and an opaque DPJ that turns a blind eye to where its cash comes from. On another level it’s a choice between returning to a DPJ that inspired the nation just 12 months ago or swallowing the bitter reality of becoming a pale imitation of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party.
The problem is that neither candidate stands for both.
In joint press conferences on Wednesday and Thursday, the gloves came off with both candidates targeting each other’s weak points. Kan asked the nation to decide who was fit to be prime minister, a reference to the persistent shadow of murky funding scandals that lurks behind Ozawa and a recent opinion poll that showed 70 percent public support for Kan and only 16 percent for his bitter rival. In the next few weeks a public panel will decide if Ozawa should be prosecuted in a case that has already seen three of his aides indicted, although there is a question mark as to whether he could be charged if he became premier.
Ozawa meanwhile has focused on last year’s manifesto, stressing that the party’s first responsibility is to actually do what it set out to. And on that point Ozawa is right.
The sad reality, though, is that with the nation’s finances as they are, how could an Ozawa administration carry out the DPJ’s original policies without adding to the mountain of public debt?
Kan has taken a realist’s view that the manifesto’s costly pledges have to be reconsidered and that the party should seek the public’s understanding for those policies it cannot realize given the nation’s financial problems. These include the much feted monthly child allowance of 26,000 yen, which he has already limited to half. He is calling for a major reform of the nation’s social security and tax systems (including the consumption tax) to get Japan back on a stable financial footing again. And on the need for this, it’s Kan’s turn to be right.
Both candidates are also talking the talk of reforming the bureaucracy. There’s not a single mainstream politician in Japan who doesn’t. On this point, Ozawa is the more convincing since Kan in his second stint in government has been speaking like a Ministry of Finance drone ever since his time as finance minister earlier this year. Kan has also downgraded the National Policy Unit to the status of an advisory body, even though this was the very symbol of the DPJ’s move to politician-led governance.
But the point that both candidates are missing is that this significant decision over which direction the nation takes should not be left in the hands of a political party that’s only been in power a year and has already changed its leader once in that time. The DPJ should vow never again to let an internal power struggle interfere with the running of the nation.
While a parliamentary system does leave the decision of who becomes prime minister to the parliament itself (and in effect the ruling party), the fact that only four of Japan’s ten most recent prime ministers have been effectively voted into power by the nation strains the limits of what can be seen as politically healthy.
So I look forward to either Kan or Ozawa proudly announcing that the DPJ will seek to limit the number of times the leader of Japan can be chosen by a political party rather than by the electorate itself. But I fear I could be in for a long wait…