With a new Cabinet at the helm, the Diet has completed a round of plenary debates following a policy speech by Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori. The first order of business for the Mori Cabinet, despite the extraordinary events preceding its inception, is to present its political vision to the nation. But the new prime minister has not tried to articulate his own ideals and policies. It seems he has missed this first opportunity to publicly establish his own identity in specific terms.
Leading off the Lower House debate, Mr. Yukio Hatoyama, head of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, criticized “the lack of transparency” in the way Mr. Mori was picked as former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi’s successor, raising questions about “the legitimacy” of the new administration. His claim, endorsed by other opposition parties, is not unfounded. In fact, there is much doubt as well as criticism among the public, not only about the back-room maneuvers staged by a handful of Liberal Democratic and government leaders after Mr. Obuchi collapsed, but also about the same-as-usual factional process of choosing the LDP president.
Mr. Mori spurned the opposition charges’s and stressed that there was “nothing wrong” with the selection process, that he has been duly elected prime minister in both houses of the Diet, and that doubt about the legitimacy of his Cabinet is “misplaced.” But he did acknowledge shortcomings in the crisis-management system and said he has ordered a study of plans to improve it, including naming an interim acting prime minister in advance. This is a step in the right direction.
That aside, Mr. Mori owes the people an accounting of the new three-way coalition of the LDP, New Komeito and the Conservative Party, a group of breakaways from the Liberal Party, which broke with Mr. Obuchi immediately before he became ill. Mr. Mori said the purpose of the new triumvirate is to “promote policies aimed at building 21st-century Japan under a stable government founded on a strong relationship of trust.” But he did not make clear where the new coalition differs from the old one. He also needs to address Mr. Hatoyama’s criticism that the new tripartite alliance is effectively a “two-way union of the LDP and New Komeito.” The people want to know what he is trying to accomplish under a new coalition in which Komeito’s weight as a partner has definitely grown.
With a general election due later this year, the Mori Cabinet is generally regarded as a “caretaker government.” The opposition camp demanded an early Lower House dissolution for an election, saying the new administration must seek a popular mandate. Mr. Mori replied that the government has more urgent things to do, such as getting budget-related bills passed quickly, taking measures against further eruptions of Mount Usu in Hokkaido and preparing for the Group of Eight summit in July. He made it clear, however, that he will call an election “without hesitation” when the time comes to seek a mandate.
In the policy speech, Mr. Mori characterized his Cabinet as one dedicated to the “revival of Japan.” During the debate that followed, however, he had nothing further to say on this subject. The top priority for the new Cabinet, as for the previous administration, is to revive the economy. However, the prime minister put fiscal reform on the back burner, saying in effect that deficit reduction, though indispensable, must wait until the economy is back on a solid recovery path. The people, however, are worried about the possible impact of the ballooning public debt on their lives. Actual deficit cutting may have to wait, but Mr. Mori must come up with a credible road map for fiscal consolidation.
The same goes for education reform. Mr. Mori said the government will take specific steps after receiving an interim report from an advisory panel, due out in the summer. First and foremost, however, he should spell out the principles of reform and a broad scenario for achieving them.
Mr. Mori reiterated that the task for his team is to pick up where the Obuchi coalition left off. That will not be enough. He needs to tell the people clearly what he intends to do and how. On that basis, he should try to gain public understanding and cooperation.
It now appears most likely that elections will be held in June. The challenge for Mr. Mori is to explain the principles and policies of his administration in ways that can win public trust. Otherwise, his coalition administration will be doomed in the coming election, ending up as a real “stopgap” administration. For the DPJ and other opposition parties, the test is to present a clear-cut alternative to the tripartite coalition in ways that demonstrate their collective will to take the reins of government.
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