Friday, February 26, 2010

Japan's frustrating politics

Nagasaki fallout

Japan’s prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, should jettison his Svengali, Ichiro Ozawa

WHEN the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) swept a mildewed 55-year-old regime from power last year, nowhere epitomised the sense of energy and enthusiasm better than Nagasaki in south-western Japan. There, a bob-haired 28-year-old drove from office a grizzly 68-year-old, known as “the Bear”, who had won nine consecutive elections for the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Less than six months later, an electoral defeat in the same city has shown how quickly Yukio Hatoyama’s government has dimmed those hopes. He needs to act boldly and decisively to stop his administration sinking into the very swamp of financial scandal and policy paralysis that it was elected to drain. And that requires him to rid himself of Ichiro Ozawa, the DPJ’s secretary-general, electoral wizard—and, now, its biggest handicap.

This week’s defeat of the DPJ’s candidate for governor of Nagasaki was an indictment of Mr Hatoyama and of Mr Ozawa, both of whom have been immersed in financial scandals. The setback was compounded by the loss of a mayoral election in a quarter of Tokyo where Mr Ozawa had stooped to campaign. “My lack of virtue is to blame,” Mr Ozawa said afterwards, in the sort of half-baked apology that Japan has heard so often lately—not least from the boss of Toyota, the fault-prone carmaker that has added to the national malaise.

In politics grovelling is no longer enough. As Nagasaki shows, the Japanese have learned to exact summary justice at the ballot-box. If Mr Hatoyama does not make greater amends for his own and Mr Ozawa’s follies, the DPJ could well pay for it in upper-house elections this July. That would leave the party’s two maverick coalition partners in a strong position, which would not only damage the DPJ, but also bring further division and disillusionment to a deflation-sapped country that is crying out for good leadership.

Were this not Japan, Mr Hatoyama might have stepped down by now. To plead ignorance of the ¥15m ($167,000) a month with which his heiress mother had for years topped up his campaign funds looks, at best, clueless. Worse, it led to tax evasion, deliberate or not, and the indictment of a former aide. His record in power has not helped, and opinion polls suggest his popularity has collapsed. His government has squabbled with America over a marine base, and internally over fiscal stimulus and the budget. In all these fights Mr Hatoyama has come across as quirky rather than authoritative. At least prosecutors have not pressed charges over the funding scandal. Japan has endured four prime ministers between 2007 and 2009; another truncated premiership is a wearying prospect.

Mr Hatoyama’s minimum act of contrition should be ensuring that Mr Ozawa steps down as the DPJ’s secretary-general. Prosecutors may have found nothing to pin on Mr Ozawa, but three current or former aides have been indicted for the misuse of political funds, and the influence he exerts over Mr Hatoyama and the ruling party is unhealthy.

Mr Ozawa may have helped win the DPJ’s thumping majority in last August’s lower-house contest. But since then, he has thrown his weight around over cabinet appointments, budgetary matters and affairs of state (he recently demanded to meet Barack Obama on a forthcoming visit to Washington). His swagger risks dividing the party, and he has become an electoral liability. He is probably shrewd enough to realise this; most opinion polls indicate he should go. But the longer he takes, the more disenchanted voters are likely to become.

The Seven Samurai to the rescue?

Mr Hatoyama will have to find salvation elsewhere in his party—and thankfully there is some hope of this. Some ministers are learning quickly on the job. For instance, Naoto Kan, the new finance minister, has called for debate on raising the consumption tax. That is no vote-winner, but it is vital for sorting out Japan’s precarious public finances. Other cabinet members distant from Mr Ozawa—some call them the “Seven Samurai”—appear refreshingly eager to get on with making policy, rather than playing politics.

Mr Hatoyama should take a bold gamble and turn to these people to revive his party’s chances in July. Even if he jettisons Mr Ozawa, the chances are that he will rely on the man’s Svengali-like influence from behind the scenes. For the good of Japan he should not. He needs to show that his party can coalesce around principles and policies, not just power. Rarely in the past half-century has Japan managed that. Mr Hatoyama has an historic opportunity to try. If he cannot take it, he too should think about going. The Economist

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