Revitalizing national politics

by Shinji Fukukawa

The Democratic Party of Japan realized a dramatic change of government with its great win in the Lower House election in August 2009. The DPJ victory came when policy evolution in the later years of the coalition administration by the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito stagnated, prompting mass media and leading intellectuals to call for change of government to pave the way for revitalization of national politics.

However, the administration of Yukio Hatoyama, which took power in September 2009, harmed Japan-U.S. relations over the issue of the relocation the U.S. Marine Corps’ Air Station Futenma in Okinawa Island and was slow in taking stimulus measures to help buoy the economy. His flip-flops worsened the political situation. He resigned in July 2010.

The succeeding administration of Naoto Kan gained a high approval rate of over 60 percent at its inception. But Kan’s vacillating remarks about the consumption tax and other major policy matters exposed his lack of leadership. Consequently, the DPJ suffered a serious defeat in the Upper House election in September. The resultant divided Diet with the DPJ keeping majority strength in the Lower House and the opposition forces dominating the Upper House has made the management of Diet business very difficult.

Under Kan, the Futenma issue remains unresolved and the restoration of mutual trust between Japan and the U.S. has been very slow. Mutual distrust between Japan and China has also grown due to Kan’s bungled handling of the incident involving a Chinese trawler that rammed two Japan Coast Guard ships off the Senkaku Islands.

The situation surrounding Japan worsened after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited the Russian-held Japanese island Kunashiri off Hokkaido and North Korea’s artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island of South Korea. The Kan Cabinet failed to take prompt measures to deal with these problems.

The government managed to get the Diet approval for the fiscal 2010 supplemental budget in November but many other important bills were not put to vote. Little progress has been made on the question of DPJ former chief Ichiro Ozawa’s political funds scandal, despite strong public criticism. Deflationary trends persist and college graduates face a dire employment situation. Social security reforms and financial rehabilitation have stagnated. As a result, the Kan Cabinet’s approval rating has plummeted to about 20 percent.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democratic Party and other opposition parties continue to criticize the Kan administration without presenting their own positive national vision or specific policy proposals.

What accounts for the failure of the ruling and opposition parties to restore vitality to politics?

First of all, there is a decline in the capabilities of political parties. Although the DPJ’s manifesto was just a list of pledges aimed at winning votes rather than a real policy vision, the Kan administration’s ongoing preoccupation with it has prevented it from devising and carrying out any appropriate policy measures. It is obvious that the government cannot carry out appropriate policy measures as long as it continues to deny much of what previous administrations have done and disregard the need to ensure continuity of foreign policy.

The strength of a ruling party is based primarily on its ability to use personnel who are rich in experience and intelligence to gather information and work out policies. None of the nation’s existing parties have such credentials.

Second, the Kan administration is hobbled by inefficiencies. The DPJ tried to promote governance in which politicians’ initiatives take a central role in place of reliance on bureaucrats. But that attempt dampened bureaucrats’ enthusiasm for supporting the administration and pushed the Cabinet into a state of information starvation. The DPJ has also avoided dialogue with leading business lobbies. An administration needs to develop a system in which information, knowledge and wisdom can be efficiently collected at home and abroad, and optimal policies can be developed. But the Kan administration is far from this state.

Third, the qualities of current political leaders are weak. To promote policies, it is necessary to think big and act locally as the established tactical theory in the “go” game advises. But the Kan administration is engaging in localized battles before making strategic preparations. As a result, its policies have bogged down, and it’s failing to win the respect of other countries.

Top national leaders have a responsibility to ensure the security of the nation and its people, enrich the country and play a responsible role in international affairs. To do so, leaders must paint a clear vision for the future, develop holistically optimum policy measures and have the courage to assert national interests in talks with leaders of other countries. Both the ruling and opposition parties suffer from a shortage of such high caliber politicians.

Given the current political situation, is there any way to revitalize the nation’s politics? Plans for a partial coalition and a grand coalition are on the tips of people’s tongues, but it appears difficult to find politicians capable of taking a leading role in realizing them. If that proves to be the case, we have no choice but to wait for the strength of political parties to grow, and highly capable and talented politicians to appear through the process of successive government changes.

To drive such a political evolution forward, people must develop a stronger interest in politics. Journalism can play a significant role in this process. Rather than write stories designed to satisfy the public’s curiosity about what is happening in the political scene, journalists should engage in political reporting that stimulates public discussion on policy matters and encourages people to make choices on policy options.

Another way to revive political vitality is to return to the multiple-seat constituency electoral system. The present single-seat system gives rise to populism and make it difficult to promote serious policy discussions. The multiple-seat constituency system would make it easier for politicians to assert their own political beliefs and present their policy proposals. This in turn would bolster the strength of political parties in terms of policy development and human resources. Some skeptics fear that the multiple-seat system might revive old-style factional politics and trigger political funding irregularities. But given today’s intense social scrutiny, such a result is highly unlikely.

In any case, it is urgently necessary to promote a national debate on how to revitalize politics in this country.

Shinji Fukukawa, former vice minister of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry and president of Dentsu Research Institute, is now chairman of the Machine Industry Memorial Foundation.