First in a series

In a country governed almost uninterrupted by a single political party for more than half a century, a historic change looms as a pivotal Lower House general election approaches later this month.

Voters will be given the opportunity to choose between continuing the almost unbroken rule of the Liberal Democratic Party or take a chance on the Democratic Party of Japan, the main opposition party, which has never been in power.

But even if, as widely predicted, the DPJ defeats the LDP in the Aug. 30 poll, its victory would signal the beginning of a new battle — a fight against bureaucrats to decide who really governs the country.

The true test for a DPJ-led government is whether it can rein in the bloated bureaucracy, which has effectively ruled the nation for decades.

“We are at a historic turning point where we must create a political structure that centers around the people” instead of bureaucrats, DPJ President Yukio Hatoyama told a news conference last week. “And in order to do so, we must establish a new structure to switch from bureaucrat-oriented politics to a government led by politicians.”

The immediate battleground for a DPJ-led government would be the budget-making process toward year’s end, especially given the constraints placed on government finances by the recession.

The core of the DPJ’s policy platform is to create a “national strategic bureau” directly under the prime minister to decide on basic policies and the national budget.

By doing so, the DPJ hopes to completely rearrange the budget to cut wasteful spending and generate funds to carry out its policy pledges, including providing child care allowance of ¥26,000 a month per child and making expressways toll-free.

The LDP-New Komeito ruling bloc “has been drafting irresponsible budgets, but we plan to thoroughly get rid of wasteful spending,” Hatoyama said during a recent interview. The budget “should match the needs of the people . . . and I believe that we must think of a budget that, in total, gives higher satisfaction to the public.”

The current method of drafting the budget is often criticized as just a compilation of the demands of each ministry. As a result, the budget-making process has become a power struggle involving ruling-party politicians and bureaucrats, with vested interests benefiting from “wasteful spending.”

Political analyst Eiken Itagaki said that under LDP rule, bureaucrats would lay the groundwork for budget requests with LDP lawmakers who have special interest in the ministries.

“If the DPJ does take over the government, the bureaucrats who were laying the groundwork with the LDP heavyweights would immediately quit doing that and rush toward the DPJ,” Itagaki said. “And that would be the beginning of negotiations between the DPJ and bureaucrats, a tug-of-war on policies.”

Although Itagaki said he was not sure how much sudden and drastic change the DPJ would achieve over the political structure, the first step for the party would be to take control of top personnel in ministries and of the budget.

“The LDP has been completely chained down by bureaucrats” and can’t change the budget system, Itagaki said. “Now is the perfect chance for the DPJ to change this.”

Meanwhile, what would change if the LDP were to stay in power? Nothing much, analysts said, looking through the party’s policy platform.

During a news conference last week, Prime Minister Taro Aso, the LDP president, brushed off the DPJ’s platform, calling it a “fantasy.” And contrary to the DPJ, Aso stressed that the LDP, of all political parties, was the one that had the ability to fulfill its responsibilities and realize its policy pledges.

“This general election will be one for the people to choose which political party (should lead Japan) depending on its policies,” Aso said. “What I can show the public is our achievements so far and our responsible policies.”

But the policies Aso unveiled last Friday were vague, lacked details, and were too long-term, according to Tomoaki Iwai, a political science professor at Nihon University.

“Because the LDP needs to coordinate everything with the bureaucrats, it cannot come up with more in-depth policies,” Iwai said. “The LDP is doing everything within the existing framework created by the bureaucrats.”

The party promised that it would create 2 percent economic growth in the second half of 2010 through “bold and concentrated economic measures.”

It also vowed to boost Japan’s per capita income to among the highest in the world by increasing the disposable income per household by ¥1 million in 10 years.

But no concrete details on how the party would actually achieve these promises were announced.

Iwai said the vagueness comes from the LDP’s tradition of sticking with the bureaucrats’ old methods instead of coming up with new ways and ideas.

“The LDP can’t come up with clear policies because it can’t disentangle itself from the bureaucrats,” Iwai said. “And the party can’t create a new (policymaking) system because of the strong opposition from the bureaucrats and lawmakers with vested interests.”

The LDP has ruled Japan almost uninterrupted since its formation in 1955. Throughout its decades of leadership, the party, forming a tight relationship with the business world and powerful bureaucrats, helped get Japan back onto its feet from the ruins of World War II.

Its long-term rule, however, also fostered corruption, pork-barrel spending and a policymaking system based on the vested interests of politicians and bureaucrats.

And that is why a periodic switch in government power would be a healthy change, political analyst Itagaki said.

“It is said that government power becomes corrupted after 10 years,” Itagaki said. “A change in government power is necessary in that sense to purify the collusive relationship with industrial organizations, corruption and trouble caused by long-term rule.”

In this series, we will take a close look at possible changes that could be brought about by a DPJ-led government following the Aug. 30 general election and compare them with the current policies under LDP rule.

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