Tokyo Notes

Japan’s Leadership Lifeline?

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Tokyo Notes

Japan’s Leadership Lifeline?

Should the DPJ introduce four-year terms for its party presidents in an effort to reduce the short-termism mentality?

Does the preponderance of elections in Japanese politics encourage ‘short-termism?’ Does an obsession with opinion polls stop Japan’s politicians from tackling pressing issues? Does pressure to perform at the next electoral hurdle explain why Japanese leaders over the last couple of decades have had such difficulty leaving their mark (with the notable exception of Junichiro Koizumi)?

Reports earlier this week suggest that some members of the Democratic Party of Japan seem to think so. The party is apparently considering making its party presidential term last four years instead of the current two, to improve leadership stability and help give the head of the party a better chance of tackling issues with robust policies that may not be to everyone’s liking—such as raising the consumption tax.

Last year was certainly a mess for the DPJ leadership. While the resignation of flip-flopper extraordinaire Yukio Hatoyama was perhaps inevitable, the subsequent sandwiching of two DPJ leadership elections around an upper house poll in the summer seemed like an exercise in shooting yourself in the foot. That second leadership election was expected to be a rubber-stamping of Kan’s leadership in the best traditions of Japanese formalism, but it helped open up a wound that continues to fester to this day.

Not surprisingly, supporters of controversial party heavyweight Ichiro Ozawa, who lost out to Kan in that September DPJ leadership election, are already labeling the plan to introduce four-year terms as a desperate attempt by those close to Kan to extend the beleaguered prime minister’s life expectancy.

At first glance, though, the idea does seem to make sense. A four-year span would give a leader a longer period in which to put forward or carry out an agenda. Leaders in Japan might not be seen so expendable, while those who elect them would have to take greater responsibility in making a long-term choice.

But these are arguments that also apply to the electorate as a whole, which takes me back to a point mentioned in previous entries about the need to simplify the upper house election system in the country and weaken that chamber so that the general election has more meaning and voters learn to live with the choices they make.

So do DPJ leaders need four-year terms? Some reform of DPJ leadership polls seems necessary to avoid the awkward double election of last year, but I don’t think making the terms four years long is the only answer. Perhaps a better way of handling contingencies like the Hatoyama resignation is more important so that a regular election within weeks is no longer required.

You could even argue that you don’t need defined terms at all provided there’s always a mechanism or a regular window of opportunity for ousting a leader who’s out of touch with the party. Some political parties, such as Britain’s Labour Party, also have different rules depending on whether the party is in power or not, to encourage continuity when the leader is in office.

It’s certainly an issue that deserves consideration, so the airing of ideas must be a good thing for the DPJ—so long as the focus is indeed on the party’s well-being and not that of any particular leader.