Sunday, September 6, 2009

A broken system that is losing its relevance

"OBAMA, Obama" and "Change, change," were the two words that people on the street kept repeating in the days leading up to the August 30 general election in Japan. The outcome of the election broke the nearly continuous monopoly (all but for an 11-month period in 1993-94) that the ruling Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP) enjoyed for half a century.

Te sluggish economy and widespread frustration and anger over the Japanese political system were the key factors in the landslide victory of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which won 308 seats out of 480 in the lower house of the Diet, while the LDP won 119 seats. It was a furious and dramatic reversal of fortune as the LDP had 303 seats in the outgoing parliament, and the DPJ only 112. This will be the first time that the DPJ has become the country's ruling party since its inception in 1996.

It was only months ago that the DPJ appeared clueless, directionless, underfunded and unfit to rule. All it had done was to block the LDP in the parliament. One if its leaders even confirmed that his bunch lacked credibility.

Then in July this year the DPJ came up with a "binding contract" with the electorate, listing populist policies it would pursue if elected. The contract was long on social programmes and economic packages for the elderly, children, and the common man, not large corporations. It pledged free schooling, improvement of the social security system and a US$270 (Bt9,215) per month child allowance, among many other freebies.

In a country that is suffering high anxiety over the 5.4 per cent unemployment rate, the highest in six years, and plagued by scandals involving fraud, mismanagement of policies and misdeeds by politicians, it is understandable why people wanted change. Calling the LDP "a party gone rotten", one that produced politicians with names like "Octopus" (alluding to many busy tentacles that diligently reached out for kickbacks), people were mad as hell and weren't going to take it anymore.

"Let's clean up Japan; let's make history. I don't want you to be just a witness of history; I want each of you to make history," campaigned Yukio Hatoyama, DPJ leader and the incoming prime minister. He called this election a "revolution".

As a PhD in Managerial Engineering from Stanford University, maybe Mr Hatoyama knows how to fix a broken system. He is from a prominent family with a long line of public service and wealth (dubbed the Kennedy clan of Japan), and thus should not lack the skills both inherited and acquired, as well as the resources, to wade into the unknown political waters of a country that has been suffering from a mid-life crisis and severe voter apathy. Even with the prospect of a sea change that promised to bring a transfer of power, the voter turnout was less than 60 per cent, not the 91 per cent as polls suggested before August 30.

Being inexperienced, the DPJ faces the dual and daunting tasks of on-the-job training and breaking the so-called "iron triangle" of lobbies, political and corporate barons and bureaucrats. This triangle could easily become a noose for Hatoyama and his administration.

Former US President Ronald Reagan had a deep-seated enmity against government, and after taking office embarked on lengthy and extensive reform initiatives and programmes that lasted throughout his eight-year administration. What was left was not a better and leaner government, but a more dysfunctional system, paralysed by a gripping fear among civil servants of job loss. Same thing happened at the World Bank that underwent the so-called "perpetual restructuring" during the tenure of James D. Wolfensohn, which saw an exodus of the best and brightest minds from the once glorified institution.

It is not the case that the US government or the World Bank did not need reform and restructuring; they did. But the difficulty in undoing years of entrenched culture and practices could prove insuperable, at least in the short run. Reinventing the machinery of government could easily turn out to be like the lupus disease in humans, when the body's immune system attacks its own tissues and organs, causing chronic inflammation.

A seasoned Asian policy-maker has made quite an interesting observation on Japan's latest political development. To him, the DPJ's victory was not unexpected, but it represents a rejection of the LDP rather than a real endorsement of the DPJ. The Japanese electorate has been increasingly disillusioned with its political system for quite some time, he said, but the voters also knew that in reality there was not that much difference in essence between the DPJ and LDP. Both are products of a broken system that is increasingly irrelevant and out of touch.

If this sounds close to home for us in Thailand, it is not a surprise. We have had election after election and taunted ourselves about "democracy in progress". But if there were any real progress, why are we still seeing a re-run of the same old script and cast in our absurd political theatre?

It is entirely possible that for Japan, the DPJ's victory, in the final analysis, will generate more noise and excitement than real change. When the exhilaration dies down and people are faced once again with reality, while the DPJ tinkers around the edges, people will get disillusioned with change and want to go back to the status quo and continuity. And the political yo-yo will continue.

In his article that appears in the monthly magazine Voice, this September, Hatoyama quoted his political mentor, Count Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi, who said: "All great historical ideas started as a utopian dream and ended with reality. Whether a particular idea remains as a utopian dream or it can become reality depends on the number of people who believe in the ideal and their ability to act upon it."

The late president Kim Dae-jung of Korea was a true believer in political ideals and acted upon them. In the end, his perpetual optimism and love for mankind, enemies included - which gave birth to the "Sunshine Policy" with North Korea - was brought back down to earth. As contended in The Economist's obituary of him, in the end even Kim Dae-jung failed to make a lasting change to the "deep, slow, corrupted flow of Korean politics".

If a man of firm conviction like Kim Dae-jung could not fix the broken system of irrelevant politics, where does it leave the rest of us? By Pornpimol Kanchanalak, The Nation

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