–The Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 21
EDITORIAL: Politics in shambles
Japan’s political disease appears to be getting worse by the day.
The malady that has stricken so many members of the political community is characterized by an obsession with power struggles in Nagatacho and causes lawmakers to neglect their primary task: the development and execution of policies.
A group of 16 lawmakers of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan who are close to former party chief Ichiro Ozawa have announced their intention to leave the party’s Diet bloc. Within the party, open calls are being heard for Prime Minister Naoto Kan to step down.
Kan has responded to the moves within his own party by indicating he might dissolve the Lower House for a snap election.
All this is happening in the midst of the Diet deliberations on the government’s draft budget for new fiscal year, which starts in April.
The outlook of crucial budget-related bills is unclear. It is a matter of great urgency to craft a plan for the proposed integrated tax and social security reform.
In other words, Japan cannot afford to allow its lawmakers in both the ruling and opposition camps to be engrossed in the political power game.
At the root of the current political situation is the struggle between Ozawa supporters and the anti-Ozawa camp that has defined the framework of Japanese politics for two decades.
It is hard to believe that the nation’s political maladies can be cured without solving this problem.
It is therefore important to take a fresh look at what Ozawa’s brand of politics is really about.
The concentration of power
The key word to understanding Ozawa’s politics is, after all, power.
Ozawa once led the movement for political reform. But for what?
In his book “Nihon Kaizo Keikaku” (“Blueprint for a New Japan,”) published in 1993, Ozawa wrote about a “troubling lack of leadership.”
According to Ozawa, Japan is “a dinosaur with a small brain.” The creature’s every move is controlled not by the brain of the leader’s decisions, but through coordination among its limbs and tail. That’s how Japanese politics works, he argues.
During the Persian Gulf crisis, the overseas deployment of Self-Defense Forces troops to support international peace-keeping efforts was blocked by opposition within the government and resistance by opposition parties.
Referring to this experience, Ozawa calls for changing the decision-making system and “democratic concentration” of power in the top leader.
Ozawa’s political reform was aimed, first and foremost, at enabling quick decision-making.
From time to time, Ozawa has played brass-knuckle politics to secure the power needed for such decision-making.
In 2007, when he was the DPJ’s president, Ozawa led the party to a victory in the Upper House election that made it the largest voting bloc in the chamber.
Ozawa parlayed his party’s strength in the Upper House to stage fierce political attacks on the ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito, forcing one prime minister to resign after another.
Still fresh in our memories are his successful bids to block the government’s nominees for the post of Bank of Japan governor, which caused the top post at the central bank to remain vacant for a while. And then he won the political battle to ensure the expiration of gasoline tax surcharges.
The DPJ’s manifesto for the 2009 Lower House election was developed in line with the agenda set by Ozawa before his resignation as party president over political donations by Nishimatsu Construction Co.
Ozawa enlarged the scale of the DPJ-proposed child-care allowance program, claiming the money needed to finance the program would be raised, no matter how much.
While it’s true that Ozawa’s political tactics made some contribution to his party’s ascent to power, the government is now paying an enormous price for his tactics.
The Kan administration is facing opposition criticism that the DPJ made many empty policy promises not backed by a solid financing plan. There is currently little hope for constructive bipartisan talks on Kan’s key policy proposals.
Ozawa’s past behavior indicates that his political priorities may not be realizing policies and visions, and he has insisted that the DPJ should stick to its manifesto.
Old-fashioned numbers game
During the process of formulating the budget for the current fiscal year, however, he decided that the gasoline tax surcharges should stay in place despite his previous fight to have them scrapped.
Ozawa also decided that outlays for land improvement projects should be halved, a move seen as political punishment for an industry organization that supported the LDP. His move forced the organization to declare its “political neutrality.”
If his true goal is the realization of his policy visions, he had many opportunities to pursue the goal while the DPJ was an opposition party controlling the Upper House. But he didn’t take advantage of these opportunities.
In addition, there is little transparency in the way he exercises his political power. In a dual power structure, Ozawa made policy decisions as a party kingpin while pulling the strings of the prime minister, who is supposed to be the top decision-maker.
Unlike the prime minister, who cannot escape from his accountability to the Diet, Ozawa can easily avoid being held accountable for his decisions.
He acts on the conviction that the source of political power lies in the number of allies. This is the logic of faction politics, which involves increasing the number of followers by offering election support and money.
That’s why the public casts a suspicious eye on his fund-raising machine, which secures the huge amounts of money needed for this politics of patronage.
Ozawa’s advocacy of reform is fundamentally incompatible with his old-fashioned approach to politics, which is a legacy of the so-called 1955 system, marked by the de facto monopoly of power by the LDP amid ideological confrontation with the Socialists.
Ozawa’s commitment to creating a political situation where power transfers to and fro between two major parties is the original goal of his political reform has also become shaky, if his actions in recent years are any indication.
During the administration of Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, Ozawa surprised the public by plotting to engineer a “grand coalition” between the LDP and the DPJ.
After the DPJ came to power, however, Ozawa adopted a political strategy focused on weakening the LDP’s power base.
His political track record inevitably leaves us wondering what he has been pursing other than power.
No time to unseat the Cabinet
Politics, of course, is a practice that can never be separated from power.
Japan’s voting public will never see an end to power struggles among their lawmakers. But something has to give.
The nation has been plagued by constant political bickering. Since the departure of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, the revolving door at the prime minister’s office over the past several years has presented an unseemly spectacle. Ozawa’s political influence was apparently behind many of these leadership changes.
It is about time for Japan to outgrow this acceptance of constant political power struggles and depart from winning power by making smooth talk to voters.
Maybe then lawmakers will be able to take a hard look at the bitter realities facing the nation and tackle them head-on.
Japan needs a leader who offers careful explanations about his policies and makes serious efforts to persuade the public to support them, instead of a leader who acts as if he had a carte blanche.
Japan also needs a Diet that seeks agreements through serious debate focused on policy issues, instead of a Diet preoccupied with partisan invectives.
The public is taking a dim view of the Kan administration, which is struggling to improve its performance.
Even so, with every Japanese keenly aware that the nation is facing a litany of woes, this is no time for political battles between ruling party rebels trying to overthrow the Cabinet and a prime minister threatening to dissolve the Lower House.