Japan’s “political deflation”

March 29, 2010


“Political deflation” – that’s how one quipster described the woes besetting Japan’s political sphere as support for both the new ruling party and its main conservative rival slips on concerns that neither side is capable of steering an economy plagued by falling prices, decades of lacklustre growth and a fast-ageing, shrinking population.

Six months after the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) swept to power  for the first time in a landslide election win that ended more than 50 years of almost unbroken rule by the conservative Liberal Democrats, support for Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s government is only about half the exuberant 70 percent level enjoyed when he took office.

Pundits are predicting the DPJ will have trouble winning an outright majority in an election, expected to be held in July, for parliament’s less powerful upper house. The Democrats need a majority to break loose of a tiny coalition partner — outspoken banking minister Shizuka Kamei’s People’s New Party  — as well as another small partner, the Social Democrats, so they can avoid policy squabbles and pass bills smoothly. An outright ruling bloc loss threatens parliamentary deadlock.

A survey published in the Nikkei business daily on Monday showed support for Hatoyama’s cabinet has slid seven points to 36 percent and support for the DPJ  is down eight points at 33 percent.

Providing some comfort — albeit cold — for the struggling Democrats is the fact that the ousted Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is faring even worse. Even before last year’s election, former financial services minister Yoshimi Watanabe had bolted the party to form the small pro-reform Your Party, and since that defeat several other lawmakers have defected while some still in the LDP are publicly criticising their uncharismatic leader, Sadakazu Tanigaki, and mulling creating rival forces.

The LDP internal strife isn’t playing well with voters, who may be disappointed with the Democrats but appear to have little appetite for a comeback by the Liberal Democrats. Support for the LDP in the Nikkei poll dipped one point to 23 percent, while that for Your Party, by contrast, doubled  to 8 percent.

Hatoyama admitted at a news conference last Friday that his novice government had made mistakes but urged voters to be patient while he pushed the DPJ’s agenda of change. The party has pledged to put more money in consumers’ hands to bolster domestic growth, cut wasteful spending, and pry control of policymaking out of the hands of elite bureaucrats who critics say are unable of forging new policy directions in a fast-changing world.

“It’s been half a year since we took power. I think we still  have problems as we are inexperienced,” the 63-year-old Hatoyama told a news conference where, in a symbolic change, the doors were open to non-mainstream media and I was called on to ask a question despite being a member of a foreign news organisation. “But we must not turn back the hands of the clock. I would like to set the hands forward for a great future, so I would like to ask the Japanese people to guide us with patience.”

Hatoyama also sought to put a positive face on the latest internal dissonance in his cabinet, this time over a proposal to revamp a plan to privatise giant Japan Post, the world’s biggest financial conglomerate, saying the dispute among ministers was a sign of healthy debate not possible under the LDP.

Hatoyama, however, gave few clues as to how he would balance the competing priorities of keeping costly campaign promises with a bulging public debt already nearing twice the value of Japan’s GDP, or settle a feud over relocating a U.S. Marines’ airbase on southern Okinawa island without upsetting either ally Washington or local residents.
Nor did he do much to address voter distaste for a series of funding scandals including one overshadowing DPJ Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa, a powerful election mastermind whose image reminds many voters of what they considered the worst of the old LDP.

Some pundits are predicting that Hatoyama’s troubles might gain critical mass around June. He has pledged to resolve the row over Futenma airbase by the end of May, while the government is set to unveil an economic growth strategy and a mid-term plan to repair state finances in May or June.

One party elder has said Hatoyama might have to resign if he bungles the base solution, while financial markets seem deeply sceptical about the government’s economic policies. Still, some political analysts say Hatoyama is right to call for patience as the government strives to alter ossified political structures that many say kept LDP governments and their bureaurcratic allies from coping with the deepseated problems facing Japan.

“I think  that the fact that the ministers and the cabinet ministers have actually been trying to govern without simply accepting bureaucratic decisions and conventions is a good thing,” Sophia University professor Koichi Nakano wrote in an email exchange.

“One would hope that the DPJ learns to govern with fewer public displays of incompetence and/or cluelessness eventually, but even the current ‘mess’ seems to me preferable to the bankrupt myth that the Japanese state elites are infallible.”

Photo credit: REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao

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