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New approach for the DPJ

by Tobias Harris

When the Lower House of the Diet passed the antiterror special measures law on Jan. 11, it became clear that the Democratic Party of Japan is not in control of the political situation. After briefly setting the agenda in the aftermath of the July 29 Upper House election by opposing the refueling mission in the Indian Ocean, the DPJ finds itself pressured by both the Fukuda government and other opposition parties.

Since winning in July, the DPJ has faced an insoluble dilemma: Is it purely an opposition party, or does its primacy in the Upper House make it responsible for legislative outcomes?

DPJ President Ozawa Ichiro has exacerbated this tension by swinging from one extreme to the other, first opposing the Liberal Democratic Party vigorously, brooking no talk of compromise, then meeting with Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda behind closed doors to discuss a grand coalition with the LDP, to the horror of his own party.

He further outraged the other opposition parties, whose cooperation is necessary for the DPJ to control the Upper House, by failing to bring the government’s new antiterror special measures bill to a vote in the upper chamber and take a definitive stand against the legislation.

In short, in a political situation that demands subtlety and nuance, Ozawa has been at once vacillating and rigid, changing his positions based on his own perception of the political situation and forcing his party to follow along behind him.

Yet in spite of Ozawa’s tactics, the DPJ still finds itself in a strong position in advance of the regular Diet session and the general election that many observers expect will be held this year. The question, therefore, is how the party can turn the sympathy it has gained since the election into the basis for a mandate to govern.

The answer lies not in doing the opposite of whatever the LDP does or in promising handouts and subsidies to rural voters, as the DPJ did in the 2007 election. The DPJ must recognize that in 2007 it got lucky: the combination of an ideologically driven, politically inept prime minister and a monumental scandal that exacerbated feelings of insecurity among the voters enabled the DPJ, with its emphasis on “lifestyle” issues, to win a historic victory over the LDP.

Having taken the MSDF refueling mission off the agenda before the start of the spring Diet session, the Fukuda government is now in position to counter the DPJ’s offensive on lifestyle issues with its own plans. Unlike before, the DPJ will not be able to profit simply from being the only party talking about the concerns of the Japanese people.

To strengthen its position in advance of a general election, the DPJ should make governance the central issue in the clash with the LDP. The DPJ must move beyond simply trying to expose and embarrass the government and make a substantive critique of LDP rule that suggests how a DPJ government will transform how Japan is governed.

Corruption in the Defense Ministry and malfeasance in the Social Insurance Agency and the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare are symptoms of a larger problem, namely an utter lack of transparency and accountability in the Japanese government.

Japan needs robust accountability mechanisms — ombudsmen, auditors and inspectors general — that will expose and punish fraud, corruption, and abuse, before they pose major threats to the public interest. Similarly, the DPJ should demand a greater role for the Diet and its committees in overseeing government operations.

The scandal at the Social Insurance Agency, which festered for years before being brought to the attention of the public in Diet deliberations, is a perfect illustration of the consequences of opaque and unaccountable governance. The scandal shows that ex post facto accountability is inadequate: Japan’s institutions must be monitored at all times.

For the Japanese government to be able to provide for its aging population, Japanese citizens must have confidence in national institutions. Without an “accountability” revolution, in which the Japanese people — acting through their elected representatives — demand that government institutions and bureaucrats be held accountable for their actions and punished swiftly when they violate the public trust, the pensions and hepatitis C scandals will not be the last of their kind.

The DPJ has signaled in the first weeks of the year that it is considering a new approach to governance, not least by calling for the creation of an independent consumer ombudsman. It is unclear, however, whether the DPJ will use this opportunity to reject systematically the culture of unaccountability that has persisted under the LDP for 50 years.

Criticizing the LDP for its systematic mismanagement of Japanese institutions — and offering concrete proposals illustrating how it will be better — may be the DPJ’s best and only chance to distinguish itself from the LDP while presenting itself as the staunchest defender of the interests of the Japanese people.

Tobias Harris is a former aide to a DPJ member of the Upper House. He is now a freelance writer and author of Observing Japan, a Japanese politics blog.