Tokyo Notes

Power Before the People?

Recent Features

Tokyo Notes

Power Before the People?

Japan’s problems didn’t begin with the DPJ. If elections are to mean anything, a party needs a fair crack at the whip.

Japan’s prime minister tried to reach out to the opposition Monday, calling for co-operation to reform the nation’s tax and social security system. It’s likely to be a forlorn call. Despite the obvious need to address these pressing issues, a vow by the leader of the main opposition party to force an early general election this year suggests that Japan’s Diet will be doing to little to serve the nation’s interests over the coming months.

How things have changed as Tokyo Notes approaches its first anniversary, and yet how familiar it all seems: Amid party factionalism, policy fumbling and political funding scandals, an embattled prime minister reshuffles his cabinet to break Diet deadlock and put the brakes on sliding poll ratings after less than a year in office.

Shortly after this blog was launched in February 2010, an opposition attempt to put pressure on the government by boycotting parliamentary activity backfired. Now a similar tactic has claimed two ministerial scalps.

But even if the Democratic Party of Japan is now very much on the political ropes, in this last blog entry before I leave you in the capable hands of Andy Sharp and David McNeill, I'd like to ask if responsibility for the nation’s woes really can be laid at the feet of the DPJ?

It’s true that the party has done much to live up to a billing of political naivety, inexperience and dissonance. Former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama perhaps best symbolized the gap between the DPJ’s good intentions and its practical results.

But let’s take a look at the nation’s debt problem, for example. As we all now know, it’s the worst in the industrialized world. But this isn’t some sudden result of the DPJ’s child allowance or the DPJ’s carefree general election manifesto; it’s the legacy of the Liberal Democratic Party’s attempts to prop up the post-bubble economy. While some economists make quite convincing arguments that the LDP was right to act as ‘spender of last resort’ to avoid a far worse economic meltdown, the LDP’s sanctimonious attempts to portray itself now as the party of fiscal prudence strike me as deeply ironic.

I suspect LDP President Sadakazu Tanigaki will continue to make out that he’s willing to discuss social security and tax reform measures for the sake of the nation while finding reasons for not doing so or blocking their progress. His current tack is that there can be no debate until a plan is on the table. Since the DPJ is saying it won’t have any proposals ready until June, that already gives Tanigaki at least five months to try to topple the current government. He might well rationalize this by thinking it’s in the nation’s interests to have an LDP-led administration.

Certainly, helping Prime Minister Naoto Kan put Japan’s finances and its social security system on a more solid footing would likely benefit the DPJ’s future electoral prospects more than the LDP’s. But is the nation’s main priority a snap general election that may well prove to be inconclusive?

I've no problem with political parties battling it out for power and the right to steer the nation, but as I've mentioned before, for a general election to have more meaning, the party elected into power should have more than ten months to try to carry out its agenda. People should elect their leaders and, apart from in exceptional circumstances, they should learn to live with the results of their choices until the next general election comes along.

If the nation’s serving politicians really do want to serve the nation, they should take part in cross-party negotiations to reform the tax and social security system as proposed by the DPJ. They should then discuss the weakening of the upper house to facilitate the legislative process so that Japan’s elected government can have more freedom to get on with actually running the country (although this isn't one of Kan’s proposals).

However, I see little prospect of either one.

And, finally, I'd like to say thanks to all the people who took the time to read my entries over the last year and to all those who commented on them.


Image: Gustavo Verissimo