Commentary / World | SENTAKU MAGAZINE

Japan aches for a political rescue

Time appears to be ripe for a complete overhaul of the Japanese political landscape, but it is utterly impossible to predict how political parties will line up after the next general election.

When Prime Minister Taro Aso came to power in September, it appeared all but certain that he would soon dissolve the Lower House and call an election, but he has since decided to put off such action at least until the turn of the year, saying now is no time to create a political vacuum in view of the financial crisis playing havoc throughout the world.

With the election likely to take place in the not-too-distant future, nonetheless, neither the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) nor the No. 1 opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) appears capable of winning a majority in the Lower House. That would necessitate a thorough reorganization of political parties. Before such reorganization, Japan badly needs two things: a new, powerful political leadership and a national vision that appeals to citizens.

One veteran LDP politician who served in the Cabinet of former Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda has expressed doubt that Aso can last through the end of this year. He points out that a number of LDP lawmakers are already clamoring for Aso’s resignation, saying they won’t be able to win in the next election if the party remains under his leadership. The veteran politician also says some powerful figures within the LDP are thinking of creating a new political group because they fear losing if they run on the LDP ticket.

More philosophical reasons for the need to reorganize are given by Hajime Funada, who served as director general of the now defunct Economic Planning Agency. In his recently published book, he says that neither the LDP nor the DPJ is made up of politicians sharing similar ideologies. Moreover, he says, the nation is in dire need of “high-quality” political groups to cope with a number of difficult problems that Japan faces in the rapidly changing world. These words appear to carry weight as they come from a politician with firsthand experience in reshaping parties.

Funada, grandson of former Lower House Speaker Naka Funada, was first elected to the Diet in 1979 at 25. During the subsequent 14 years, he successfully climbed the political ladder in the LDP, holding a number of important party and government posts. In 1993, however, he joined Ichiro Ozawa, currently the head of the DPJ, and former Prime Minister Tsutomu Hata in deserting the LDP to form the Japan Renewal Party (Shinseito), and helped install the first non-LDP Cabinet since 1955 under Morihiro Hosokawa. He did not get along well with his new colleagues, so he had no choice but to return to the LDP in 1997, which marked the collapse of the anti-LDP reorganization.

Despite this bitter experience, Funada says he is not alone in seeing an urgent need for another reorganization of the political party setup. For one thing, he says, both the LDP and the DPJ are made up of politicians with divergent ideologies, making it impossible for either to clarify an agenda or to win support from citizens.

Also, a bitter dispute exists within the LDP between those who favor a large amount of spending to shore up the economy and those who put top priority on balancing the budget. Within the DPJ, certain factions advocate a greater military role for Japan while others call for “unilateral pacifism.” In Funada’s view, these intraparty controversies represent such fundamental ideological differences that neither the LDP nor the DPJ falls under the definition of a political party.

Another reason Japan needs a reorganization of political parties, Funada writes, is that “Japan is about to face more serious social changes than it has ever experienced, and will not be able to overcome them without a solid political foundation. To resolve difficult problems arising from a rapid decrease in the population, environmental constraints and fiscal deficits, and to maintain the affluence that we enjoy today, it is incumbent upon the government to make clear decisions in a timely manner. What we need for that purpose is a group of high-quality politicians.”

The theories propagated by Funada describe why reorganization of the Japanese political landscape cannot and must not be dodged. There is no denying either that the time is ripe for such reorganization. This is all the more obvious because proceedings in the Diet have so often been paralyzed due to the governing coalition, LDP and Komeito, commanding a two-thirds majority in the Lower House while the DPJ and other opposition groups hold a majority in the Upper House. This abnormal situation has caused two governments to fall in as many years, and now the government under Prime Minister Aso is in jeopardy.

Without new leadership and a new vision, any attempt for political reorganization will not only end up the same way as the anti-LDP coup of 1993 but also exacerbate the current political chaos.

Politicians in both the governing coalition and the opposition camp must stop pursuing their self-interests and direct their energy to selecting a type of leader who can gain the support of majority forces in both houses of the legislature.

Selection of such a leader will save the nation and is a prerequisite to the “high-quality” political party called for by Funada.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the December issue of Sentaku, a magazine covering Japanese political, economic and social topics.

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