The Democratic Party of Japan-led Cabinet heads into its second month Friday, after coming out quickly to usher in a new political era in the wake of the Liberal Democratic Party’s long domination.
Recent opinion polls have shown surprisingly strong support of 60 percent to 70 percent for the Cabinet, impressive numbers for a party that was only established in 1998 and had zero experience in running the government.
“I’d give the administration a high score, an 8 out of 10,” political analyst Kichiya Kobayashi said.
In explaining Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s popularity, Kobayashi said the administration has successfully demonstrated a robust push for change, including efforts to reduce wasteful government spending.
But critics warn the Cabinet will soon face daunting challenges as the DPJ tries to forge a pragmatic program out of its idealistic campaign promises without disillusioning voters or Japan’s diplomatic partners.
In the past month, Cabinet members have made headlines by announcing drastic turnarounds from LDP policies, presenting a refreshing image of robust leadership.
But while these promises sound nice, the true test will come in the implementation, which hasn’t really started yet.
The promises include suspension of a gigantic dam project in Yamba, Gunma Prefecture, despite the objection of local residents; an international promise to reduce carbon dioxide emissions 25 percent by 2020, which has big business howling; and the relocation of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma outside Okinawa, which has been stalled for years because of the difficulty in finding an alternative site due to “not-in-my-backyard” sentiment nationwide.
“There will be difficulties ahead, for example with the Futenma issue not showing signs of progress. But I don’t think the DPJ needs to adamantly stick to its political pledges,” Kobayashi said. “At the end of the day, the government cannot afford to quarrel with the U.S.”
Launching simple and clear campaign pledges is a pet election tactic of DPJ Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa, who guided the DPJ to a landslide victory in the Aug. 30 election.
Since the formation of the new Cabinet, ministers have kept repeating these election mantras to maintain a consistency between the campaign and the policies of the administration.
“That’s exactly what I expected. Clearly announcing that we will implement what we have pledged as soon as possible is the way to meet the expectations of the public,” Hatoyama said Sept. 17.
Members of the Cabinet — including Hatoyama — fear being branded as “flip-flopping” on their political stance. Taro Aso, the last LDP prime minister, suffered harsh criticism for repeatedly changing policies and decisions, which seriously — if not fatally — damaged his popularity in the last days of his administration.
The most symbolic move of the DPJ-led Cabinet has been infrastructure minister Seiji Maehara’s announcement that the government will honor the party’s campaign promise to cancel construction of Yamba Dam, a public works project with origins going all the way back to 1952.
The ¥460 billion project on the Agatsuma River was scheduled to be completed in fiscal 2015. According to the infrastructure ministry, 70 percent of the final price tag has already been paid.
But Maehara said people along the river no longer need the dam either for water supply or flood control.
“(Cancellation) is written in our (campaign) manifesto, so we will terminate the dam project,” Maehara said early in the morning of Sept. 17, the day after the Cabinet was born.
Local residents, many of whom have already moved out or are ready to leave their land, have come out strong against Maehara’s abrupt announcement.
The opposition immediately became a favorite topic of TV news shows, which eventually prompted Maehara to promise not to stop ongoing construction work without the consent of the locals.
“Cutting down on wasteful spending can be praised, but the DPJ hasn’t given any explanation on what they intend to do in the medium and long terms,” political analyst Kobayashi said.
Tsunao Imamura, a professor of public administration at Chuo University in Tokyo, warned that Hatoyama is trying to make the administration too powerful.
“I fear the centralization of power that is being imposed by the DPJ. They are lacking any consideration for local governments,” Imamura said.
On the diplomatic front, the DPJ has pledged to end the Maritime Self-Defense Force refueling mission in the Indian Ocean in support of U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan when the law authorizing the mission expires in January.
The U.S. has repeatedly asked Tokyo to extend the mission, having expressed hope that the DPJ will take a more pragmatic approach toward the U.S. than its election promises suggested.
Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada and Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa, however, have shown no signs of compromising on their election pledges.
“The end of the mission will come in January. We will just withdraw calmly in accordance with the law” that authorizes the MSDF dispatch, Kitazawa said at a news conference Tuesday.
In Pakistan on Monday, Okada said it would be technically difficult to enact the legislation to extend the operation beyond January, given the tight Diet deliberation schedule.
Not extending will have a considerable impact on Japan’s ties with the U.S., the country’s lone military ally.
The apparent lack of a power center may also prove to be a serious shortcoming of the new government.
The roles of the deputy prime minister, administrative reform minister and chief Cabinet secretary have not been clearly defined, and discord among them has already surfaced.
In short, who will lead the government drive to cut spending and streamline government organizations — another key pledge — has not been decided yet.
The DPJ established the National Strategic Office directly under Hatoyama to administer cross-ministerial issues and government policies, including the annual budget.
Deputy Prime Minister Naoto Kan was appointed the minister in charge of managing the office.
The NSO was set up as vowed to strip the bureaucracy of its influence on the decision-making process and have politicians fill that role. In place of weekly meetings by administrative vice ministers, the office was to operate as the pillar of the government, working together with key government branches, including the Cabinet and Finance Ministry.
“The issue with the NSO is that its operation is still unclear. We don’t know what exactly it is supposed to do, and the DPJ needs to work on clarifying that fast,” analyst Kobayashi said.