Just six months have passed since the Sept. 16 inauguration of the Hatoyama administration. In his first policy speech, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama pledged to do his utmost to build a nation truly based on the sovereignty of the people, and to “change the history” of the nation. There was a tangible sense of hope that his administration would bring meaningful changes to Japanese politics.
That hope is now turning into disenchantment because of the administration’s indecisiveness, slowness to act and lack of direction on key policy matters.
Mr. Hatoyama has the responsibility of pulling his administration out of its dire state. He must show leadership to Cabinet ministers so that decisions on important issues can be made quickly and with clarity of purpose. It is important that broad and intensive discussions be conducted in the Cabinet, but Mr. Hatoyama should have the courage to discipline Cabinet members who make careless statements that give the impression of an administration without direction.
A Kyodo News poll conducted on March 6 and 7 shows that the administration’s approval rating has fallen 5.1 points from the previous poll in February to 36.3 percent, about a half the 72 percent the administration enjoyed at its inception. This is the first time its approval rating has measured at lower than 40 percent. The disapproval rating, meanwhile, increased 3.8 points from the February poll to 48.9 percent. Mr. Hatoyama should heed the fact that the top reason given for disapproval of his administration was his own lack of leadership.
There was more bad news for the DPJ concerning the election slated for the coming summer. Only 28.3 percent of poll respondents want the Democratic Party of Japan to attain a majority of the Upper House seats, compared with 58.6 percent who oppose the prospect of the DPJ obtaining a majority. Asked which party they will vote for in the Upper House election’s proportional representation election, 26.9 percent — down 6.7 points — mentioned the DPJ. This is almost equal to the 26.3 percent who said they would plump for the Liberl Democratic Party, a rise of 2.9 points.
Also made clear by the poll is that the political funding scandals involving Mr. Hatoyama and DPJ Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa have diminished people’s trust in the administration. An overwhelming 74.8 percent of those polled want Mr. Ozawa to resign from his party post. Mr. Hatoyama should look squarely at this evidence of people’s disillusionment with the government and act decisively to turn the situation around.
It is not as if the change of government has been meaningless. The administration has received praise for bringing greater transparency to the process of compiling the budget by scrutinizing a large number of budget requests in full view of the public. It has also produced reports on secret pacts made by previous LDP governments with the United States over the Japan-U.S. security arrangement and the reversion of Okinawa from the U.S. to Japan.
But the lack of unity and direction in the Cabinet is crippling the administration. For example, several key Cabinet members, including Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada, have expressed disparate opinions as to the issue of the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Air Station Futenma in Okinawa Island. Evidently, despite the prime minister having called for moving the Futenma function outside Okinawa Prefecture, there was no common understanding about the issue within the Cabinet.
Futenma is only one of Japan’s defense-related challenges. The Cabinet must also be cohesive on such matters as China’s military buildup, North Korea’s nuclear development programs and the role of U.S. Marines in the event of an emergency.
Another difficulty facing the administration derives from the shortage of funds preventing it from carrying out campaign promises. The child allowance is a typical case. The administration will provide ¥13,000 per month per child in fiscal 2010, and in accordance with the DPJ’s election manifesto, plans to double the allowance to ¥26,000. This promise will cost ¥5.3 trillion to realize, an amount that the administration will find extremely difficult to scrape up.
The limited availability of funds was apparently not thought out carefully when the election manifesto was constructed. If necessary, the administration should not hesitate to prioritize and concentrate on the key campaign promises that it regards as the most important. It is imperative that the administration be flexible enough to adapt its governing style in order to tackle the nation’s most urgent problems.
Ministers, senior vice ministers and parliamentary secretaries of the ministries, all of whom are lawmakers, should closely coordinate their own efforts with those of the prime minister so that Mr. Hatoyama will have full knowledge of and control over Cabinet decisions.
The DPJ should also create a mechanism to ensure free and open-minded discussion among party members over policy matters. Such party-wide discussions appear to have disappeared, a cost of concentrating policy-related decision making in the Cabinet.
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