Bureaucratic reform first hurdle

DPJ must put politicians in charge of policymaking, as pledged, to maintain voter support


After a historic landslide victory in the Aug. 30 election, a new Cabinet was launched Wednesday, led by Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s Democratic Party of Japan.

The incoming administration’s first big test is whether it can follow through on its promise of administrative reform, wresting power from the bureaucrats and putting politicians in charge of policy and the budget.

Experts warn that the new government will need to show tangible results to maintain voters’ support until next summer’s Upper House election, which will decide the long-term fate of the DPJ-led government.

“Bureaucrats will begin complying with orders once they feel that the new government will be around for a while. In that sense, I think policies should be implemented quickly while Cabinet approval ratings are still high,” said Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo.

Nakano said that the National Strategy Bureau — to be headed by Naoto Kan, who will also serve as deputy prime minister — will be central to promoting the government’s agenda and drawing up the budget.

But it remains to be seen how effective the new bureau will be, Nakano said.

“We see a blueprint of how the new government wants to concentrate power within the prime minister’s office or the National Strategy Bureau, but we still can’t quite grasp how the bureaucrats will be controlled within each ministry.”

The bureau is to be set up directly under the prime minister and will serve as the locus for efforts to drastically change budget allocations and reform powerful ministries.

Proposed measures such as handing out child allowances, making public high schools free, abolishing tolls on expressways and boosting payments to farmers are expected to cost ¥7.1 trillion in fiscal 2010.

The incoming administration hopes to suspend ¥4.36 trillion of the ¥14 trillion fiscal 2009 supplementary budget and use it to bankroll its measures. But just how much money can be freed up remains to be seen.

The government also hopes to rework some ¥70 trillion of the total budget of ¥207 trillion for fiscal 2010 by cutting back on large public works projects and subsidies for agriculture.

To achieve these drastic budgetary shifts, the DPJ plans to give the proposed National Strategy Bureau the authority to oversee the budget process, and possibly even extend its power to foreign policy and personnel decisions.

The idea is to give the bureau greater credence.

Kan, a former civil society activist and health minister in Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto’s Cabinet, has been tasked with heading the bureau because of his proven ability to handle powerful bureaucrats.

During his time as health minister, Kan in 1996 uncovered the health ministry’s responsibility for the spread of HIV-tainted blood products, which infected thousands of hemophiliacs and killed many of them.

Norihiko Narita, a professor at Surugadai University, said Kan will be working closely with Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano in coordinating the Cabinet.

“Hirano is reserved and prefers working behind the scenes,” Narita said.

“I think appointing him as chief Cabinet secretary was a good choice — it’ll give Kan breathing space to move around without worrying about infringing on each other’s authority. It’s a good combination.”

But with no previous experience in power, and facing a complicated budget-drafting system, the administration is bound to face difficulty drawing up a budget before the end of the year, plus the usual challenges for a new government.

Another key challenge for Hatoyama’s government is whether the three coalition partners — the DPJ, the Social Democratic Party and Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party) — will be able to maintain solidarity despite differences on foreign and security policy, including sending the Self-Defense Forces overseas and a planned realignment of U.S. forces in Okinawa.

The support of the two minor parties is crucial for the DPJ, at least until next summer’s Upper House election, as the DPJ currently lacks a majority in that chamber and requires its partners’ support to have bills approved.

And time is already running out for the new Hatoyama government. Voters are anxiously watching if the DPJ can fulfill its campaign promises, according to Sophia University’s Nakano.