Challenges stare DPJ in the face

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By Hu Xuan 

Japan stands on the threshold of change as the Aug 30 election to its Lower House of Parliament is expected to see the end of Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) rule for just the second time in more than half a century.

Should the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) manage to come to power, it will not be on the strength of its policies alone. The high support figures for the DPJ in various opinion polls so far is ostensibly due to the LDP's unpopularity.

The main cause of the people's disenchantment with the LDP lies in the party's failure to address their anxieties about their daily lives and the future of the nation.

Japan is no longer a country of optimists, as Liu Di, associate professor in Tokyo's Kyorin University told China Daily. Today the country is confronted by widening social and economic disparities, deepening poverty among the poor, a fatigued farming sector and an aging society with a shrinking birth rate. The global economic crisis has succeeded in only aggravating the situation.

The DPJ and the LDP both are wooing voters with promises of protecting their livelihoods, but neither seems to have a clear-cut plan to achieve that. They may be baying for each other's blood, but there is no clear difference between their policies. In fact, nine influential Japanese organizations that closely track the parties' policies have rapped them for sticking to the decades-old pork barrel politics.

About 83 percent of the respondents to the latest Asahi Shimbun survey doubt if either the LDP or the DPJ will be able to finance the programs they have pledged in their election manifestoes. With the jobless rate hitting 5.4 percent in June, experts worry whether the labor policies of the LDP or the DPJ would be able to stop layoffs anytime soon. Even if the DPJ ousts the LDP from power, think tanks estimate the unemployment rate will keep soaring till at least the end of this year

What is equally lacking from both parties is a long-term growth strategy to secure a brighter future for Japan. Granted, the LDP has set a few numerical targets, such as GDP growth of 2 percent (annual rate) in the later half of the next fiscal year and creating demands worth $4.26-6.38 trillion over the next three years. The DPJ, on its part, has promised to transform Japan's economy into one led by domestic demand. But neither party offers a road map to reach their goals.

The challenge for a Japanese government, however, is finding the right balance between public demand for social protection and the need for structural reform and fiscal restraint. Though the DPJ says it can strike that balance, voters wonder if a party that has never been in power could steer the nation in the right direction.

Getting elected is only the beginning of the DPJ's challenges. For one, it has to come good on its bold promise of changing Japan's governing structure by scrapping the country's "iron triangle" of industrial lobbies, political barons and bureaucrats. DPJ Secretary General Katsuya Okada has said changing the bureaucratic habits of the past will be a prerequisite to fulfilling the party's other poll promises.

During decades of LDP rule, influential bureaucrats worked with powerful party bosses and industrial lobbies to set the agenda, flesh out policy and neutralize any reform efforts that threatened their vested interests. It's LDP's policymaking bodies that further undermined the authority of the prime minister.

Even Junichiro Koizumi, perhaps the most reform-minded of all the LDP prime ministers and whose popularity rested partly on his promise to destroy the party itself, struggled to get things done. The three years since Koizumi left office have seen further decline in the power of the prime minister to get the support of party members and bureaucrats.

The DPJ acknowledges the struggle ahead: To get a policy passed, the policymaking process itself has to be changed. The party is likely to adopt Britain's Westminster system, in which policies are made on the basis of the ruling party's platform, with proposals coming from a centralized Cabinet.

DPJ Deputy President Naoto Kan visited the UK in June to hold talks with government and opposition officials on the transition of power and the relationship between bureaucrats and politicians. Upon his return, he gave shape to his thoughts in the July issue of Chuo Koron magazine, saying the DPJ hopes to build a "parliamentary cabinet system". Its program includes forming a national strategy bureau under the prime minister and assigning more than 100 politicians to ministries and government agencies. It plans to make the Cabinet responsible for planning and execution of policies, bureaucrats accountable to their ministers, and to centralize the budget-making process.

But will the DPJ plan work in real situations? Such a drastic overhaul of the administrative system is bound to face resistance from the unwieldy bureaucracy. Analysts say that even if the DPJ succeeds in getting the Diet pass a bill, it has to ensure that the bureaucrats implement it. That would need a combination of coaxing and courage. Coaxing because a new government will have to identify the bureaucrats who want reform, and courage because the system will fight back, just as it did when the LDP lost power briefly in the early 1990s.

Reorganizing the government machinery even in four years, which the DPJ says it needs, will be tough. The DPJ has to bank on the LDP becoming a healthy opposition party to give shape to its ideas.

No party can expect to win an election without proposing alternatives to existing policies. The DPJ has done so too, suggesting alternative policies on the environment and nuclear disarmament, and taking a more pragmatic approach toward its ties with the United States.

DPJ President Yukio Hatoyama, likely to become prime minister if the party wins the election, says he will seek a "close and equal" partnership with Washington. While security ties with the US will remain a "diplomatic cornerstone" of its foreign policy, Japan will endeavor to strengthen its relations with Asian neighbors, including China. China and Japan need to deepen their "strategic and mutually beneficial relations" and define their contents clearly, Hatoyama has said.

Xu Dunxin, former Chinese ambassador to Japan, told China Daily that in an era of accelerated globalization, China and Japan should see their ties from a broader perspective. For a genuine rapport to develop across the narrow strip of water that divides the two countries, there has to be trust in the first place. To build that confidence, they first have to communicate.

Governments and leaders change over time, but not the people. "Hence, it is essential for the two peoples to know more about each other." Xu said.

(China Daily August 26, 2009)

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