Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Short Answers to Complicated Questions

Question:     Japanese governments are typically weak, squeezed as they are between internal party politics — politicians are less loyal toward their parties than to their factions and money donors — industry associations and special interest groups, and a powerful, unaccountable bureaucracy that ignores the government at will. We've had five Prime ministers in as many years.

The current situation is even worse than usual. The ruling party is close to splitting over internal disagreements. The opposition has control of the upper house and is opposing any and all legislation it can in a bid to force the government to call a general election. A general election that won't be held any time soon: the DPJ knows it will lose many seats and wants to delay as long as possible; the tsunami-ravaged areas are still in no condition to hold any kind of election; and the supreme court has declared the current election district system unconstitutional.

Prime minister Kan has promised the opposition to resign in exchange for the passage of a few budget- and energy-related bills. This will happen within a couple of weeks, and the internal DPJ campaign for electing the next PM is in full swing; Maehara, Noda, Mabuchi and others are all possible candidates. This is just a temporary appointment, though, as the regular party leadership election is scheduled in a year.

The newly appointed PM will have virtually no political leverage with the opposition or the ministries and can count on no public support. Everyone knows they will face a re-election (and likely defeat) in a year, making them a lame duck from day one. The pressing problems — reconstruction of Tohoku, resolution of the Fukushima disaster, rapidly worsening state finances and the effects of a strong yen and worldwide recession — are all mostly out of their hands, but still their public responsibility.

Given the grave situation above, what practical effect will the choice of new Prime minister have on Japanese politics in general; and the task of rebuilding northern Japan, turning around the economy and formulating a new energy policy in particular?

Answer:     None.

Thank you for reading this edition of "Short Answers to Complicated Questions". Please join us again for the next edition where we tackle the complicated question of reality-based evidence for a supernatural origin of the universe.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I see this as exactly the opposite ie it matters a lot- the election of a candidate with no public popularity will guarantee that nothing is done for the next year, this is true. But the election of a candidate who can hold some degree of popularity with the public and god forbid is able to keep the party vaguely intact will have some leverage to create a favourable narrative for themselves that they can use to goad the opposition to cooperate. Yes the political situation has been terrible and doesn't help things but we also to remember who 4 of the last 5 PMs were - Abe, Aso, Hatoyama and Kan. Not exactly the A-list of Japanese politicians. There is plenty of room for human agency in the current political context. After all, Abe was far too elitist to concern himself with the common man, Aso was an idiot, Hatoyama ditto, and Kan was shown to be every bit as inconsistent as his rumoured temper would suggest he would be and even less charisma than the previous three. Even then, the Kan government managed to pass a bill on NPO tax breaks and will pass a renewable energy bill - these will both have considerable implications down the track (say in 5-10 years time) for Japanese politics and society. So while I completely understand where you are coming from, I think the answer is not quite that short ;-)

  3. Before Abe, though, there was Fukuda, as good a man as any of the current candidates; and even he was unable to break through the politics.
    Here's what I wrote elsewhere:
    "The process in itself, however, could lead to a political realignment, with non-Ozawa DJP forces teaming up with other small parties (e.g., Watanabe's Your Party) and disgruntled LDP members. I'd give it about a 15-20% chance of happening, anyway."
    But now I notice some LDP members are already bringing up that "Korean" political donation issue that caused Maehara to quit as Foreign Minister. So much for focus.

  4. Wataru - thanks, changed it!

    sigma1 - I understand your sentiment. Let me expand my answer above just a little bit:

    * Yes, public support matters (though not as much as many people seem to believe; fodder for a different post perhaps). But public support depends on the PM solving the big problems of the day. The current big problems are however not ones that the central government is in any position to solve.

    Rebuilding Tohoku will happen locally. All the central government can do is throw money and other resources at it — which, to the credit of Kan and the opposition, they have been doing. But any real results will take years, and depend on the performance of people on the ground; their local governments, citizens, support groups. There is very little policy can do to affect it one way or another.

    The nuclear disaster is basically all out of the governments hands. The events on the ground will play out the same irrespective of any policy decisions. Questions of reimbursements, accountability (including criminal and corporate liability) and the like could be influenced by the government to some degree by the introduction of legislation. But it is quite clear that the power industry has enough friends in the diet and upper house that they will escape the worst no matter who's in charge; also, any government has limited leeway to influence ongoing judicial matters, for very good reason.

    State finances are likewise effectively immovable. The diet is basically deadlocked on the issue, with any movement in any direction such as necessary tax increases, reduced payouts to interest groups such as agriculture, regional or industry support and so on, are opposed by enough lawmakers — opposed by the ministries and/or interest groups that support them — that they will not be enacted or implemented.

    The strong yen, declining birthrate, dysfunctional employment market and other such issues are of course largely or completely out of any governmnents hands, no matter how proactive. Exchange rates and macroeconomic situation depends as much or more on the world than on Japan itself; the long-standing societal issues can only be resolved by an eventual society-wide shift in thinking, something that can't be legislated.

    These issues are all the PMs responsibility according to the public. Any government would be hard pressed to have more than a very limited effect on any of them. But whoever comes into office next will, as I wrote, be a lame duck, and will face a divided diet with an opposition that would be willing to vote down its own proposals if it hurts whoever is in charge.

    In short, whoever gets elected will have the same brief bump in public support, followed by the same rapid decline once the public realizes they have no magic wand and can't do anything at all to resolve these festering issues.

  5. (Part II):

    I Agree that Abe and Hatoyama especially were not the first people I'd choose to lead a girl scout troop outing, never mind a whole country. But most of them are not bad as such. Aso and Kan may not be superstars, but neither are they clueless either, and they may have made perfectly serviceable prime ministers in a different political situation. Fukuda struck me as the most competent of the bunch, if nothing else than because he realized he was moribound and quit the job before he was forced out.

    The point is, one or two short-lived PMs can be a failure to choose the right candidate. Five in a row is a sign of a failing political system. They haven't been successful because nobody can be successful in the current political and societal climate. Even the vaunted Koizumi parlayed personal charisma, a Machiavellian divide-and-conquer approach and an outsider status simply into extending his stay as PM. His one serious policy victory — privatizing the post office — basically broke the back of his government.

    Whoever is next will face the same situation, with the same limited to non-existent means of resolving any of the issues that the public is squarely making the PM responsible for. So no, as far as the country at large is concerned it really doesn't matter.

  6. I often think what we need is foreign control of this nation as seen when Japan defeated WW2.

  7. I certainly agree with you on the big issues and how the political situation prevents them from being dealt with. But I do see the political reality of the last few years a little bit differently (Aso? The guy could barely read!) including the reading of the Koizumi administration. But skipping over all that I do have to question that the public really does believe that politicians should be able to magic away the pressing structural issues that underpin current political, economic and social reality. If so we should be seeing the public running back to the LDP as quick as anything. The main issue for the public in regards to Hatoyama and Kan is that they had absolutely no focus while in government. They needlessly alienated their allies and they had no idea about where they were going with their policy program. If Hatoyama had of started with the small issues - which was pretty much anything but the Futenma base relocation - then things would have been quite different. Kan certainly showed poor judgement in his policy program - mainly because he changed it every few weeks. Already the LDP has said they can work with Maehara because he has a similar position on a range of foreign policy issues and other issues. Maehara was once seen to be a conduit between the DPJ and LDP and knows the reform wing of the LDP quite well.

    For me it comes down to whether the DPJ can drive a wedge between the senior leadership and the reformist wing of the LDP, and/or between the LDP and the New Komeito. To do this the PM has to have a clear and consistent message/policy program, and they have to keep the DPJ itself quiet for long enough to allow the LDP to start feeding on itself. Then we will see things happen. I'm not saying this will happen but it is one distinct possibility. I guess we can only say time will tell.

  8. I think we disagree on two points, mostly — and I may well be wrong on them; I often am. I agree about the lack of focus, and about everything on Hatoyama. Though I think you're shortselling Aso; being intellectual is not congruent with being a good leader as much as we intellectuals would wish it were.

    First, I do think the public — fairly or unfairly — expects the PM to solve these kind of issues. The recent Yomiuri piece demanding the government Do Something about the exchange rate was not only a cheap shot at a party they dislike; it reflects a common belief that this is within the purview of the government. Opinion polls berating the government for the response to Fukushima similarly reflects a belief that this is something the government can do much more about than is in fact the case. People are bound to become disappointed no matter what, and with the disappointment so goes the approval ratings.

    As for being able to cooperate with parts of the LDP, I believe that is improbable. The issue is again that the term for the next PM and his cabinet is less than a year, and will get dragged down by the dismal ratings for DPJ and by the mounting problems. To be blunt: if you're LDP, you're relatively speaking winning right now. Your opposing party is taking the blame for everything, and in the next election you should have a relatively easy campaign. Why share the blame with a boat anchor sure to sink in a year when you can simply wait this out and get to fight for real power after the next election?

    I hope I'm wrong and you are right. But hope is not reality. We'll see.

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