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The Upper House Vote and the Process of “Creative Destruction”

Tags: DPJ , Kan , Japan-US Alliance , Public Debt , Leadership

Curtis, Gerald L.

August 04, 2010

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The Democratic Party of Japan’s setback in the July 11 House of Councillors election has produced “a political gridlock worse than anything Japan has experienced in half a century,” notes Gerald Curtis, a Tokyo Foundation senior fellow and the Burgess professor of political science at Columbia University. This is part of a process of “creative destruction,” though, that Japan must pass through to create an effective and responsive government.

QUESTION: How do you analyze the results of the July 11 House of Councillors election?

Curtis_01GERALD CURTIS: The election results have produced a gridlock worse than anything Japan has experienced in half a century. It’s much worse than the situation the Liberal Democratic Party faced before it lost power to the DPJ, when it had a two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives. The Democratic Party of Japan doesn’t have that now, so it will be unable to override a House of Councillors rejection to pass key pieces of legislation.

The DPJ will have to find other parties that will agree with it on specific pieces of legislation. The possibility of this happening, though, is very small. Much likelier is that the LDP, Minna no To (Your Party), and Komeito will resist making policy agreements with the DPJ because they will feel that if they vote with Prime Minister Naoto Kan, they’ll be helping him out. So they’ll take an uncompromising position, demanding that he swallow their position whole. Rather than make policy agreements, they are likely to put a lot of pressure on Kan to dissolve the Diet. This Diet is not likely to last for three more years. This political standoff will prevent the country from dealing with many important issues, regarding both domestic and foreign policy. 

What we’re observing now in the Japanese government is part of a process of “creative destruction.” Eventually a new political party system and new decision making mechanisms will emerge to replace the system that existed under nearly a half century of LDP rule, but to create something new means destroying things that currently exist. Right now it is easier to see the destruction than the creation but clearly Japanese politics is in a phase of major change and evolution. This may be good news for Japan in the long run, but the short term consequences are mostly negative. There’s a very good chance that the next lower house election will result in an even more confused political situation. It is conceivable that there will be a major party realignment. This is likely to produce weak and ineffective governments for some time to come.

It would have been much better if the DPJ had won a majority in the upper house election. Then its responsibility for the government’s performance would be clear and the voters would be able to hold it accountable in the next lower house election. Under this gridlock situation, each party will be blaming the other for the government’s failure to deal with the nation’s problems and the public will find it hard to choose among them.

Public unhappiness with the choices given them were evident in this election. The LDP won more seats, but the DPJ won more votes nationwide. Public opinion polls show declining support for the DPJ but no increase in support for the LDP. They’re disappointed with the DPJ, but they’re not attracted by the LDP either. The voters want to be led, they want a party that can persuade them about what needs to be done, but they’re not getting it in any of the choices presented to them. The public is looking for politicians who have a compelling vision about where the country should be heading and how to get there.

QUESTION: What are the prospects of running into such a leader?

CURTIS: You never know who that leader is until he shows up. No one expected Jun’ichiro Koizumi to be so popular. He wound up staying in office almost longer than anyone else in the postwar period. He was enormously popular but he was not a populist. He didn’t tell the public what he thought they wanted to hear; he told them that the country needed to take risks, to do things differently in order to prosper. And the public believed in him and therefore supported his policies. Some people thought Kan might show a Koizumi-like determination and rally public support but the way he raised and then waffled on the issue of increasing the consumption tax badly damaged his image.

QUESTION: Perhaps the lack of visionary political leader is a problem with the electoral system, with the campaign period being so short, so candidates aren’t really tested before they enter office.

CURTIS: There no doubt are structural factors that contribute to the paucity of political leadership in Japan. The rapid turnover of prime ministers cannot be simply a coincidence. The mostly single member district system is inappropriate for Japan. This is a society without deep social cleavages along the lines of religion, ethnicity, race, class, and so on, so that with a two-party system, the two major parties invariably wind up being very similar. That’s why there have been these wide swings in voter support since the single-member districts were created.

In Britain or the United States, where you still have strong cleavages based on region, religion, and race, there’s a core base of support for each party, and there’s fundamental stability. But here, neither party has an anchor in society. Japan would be much better off going back to a modified system of multiple-seat districts or adopting a fully proportional representation system.

The election law’s excessive restrictions on campaign practices keeps politicians campaigning as they did decades ago even though the society has changed enormously; Politicians are still going around with loudspeakers on their trucks blaring out their names and saying please vote for me. This is because most campaign practices that are usual in other countries are prohibited here: no door-to-door calls, limits on the written materials you can distribute, no freedom to use the internet during the campaign period, and so on.

In recent years the LDP and the DPJ have adopted a policy where if the party president resigns the person chosen to replace him has to serve out the term of his predecessor and then stand for election again. So instead of Kan being elected to a regular two year term as DPJ president when Prime Minister Hatoyama resigned, he is serving out Hatoyama’s term and has to face an election in September.

QUESTION: What can Kan do to stabilize the political situation?

CURTIS: There’re only two things he can do. One is to appeal to other parties to support particular policy initiatives and compromise with other parties on key issues. There has to be a willingness on the part of Kan and the DPJ to make the Diet the central site for actual policy formulation and to find new ways to cooperate across party lines.

In Japan, the practice has been for the bureaucracy to draft policy and for the cabinet to submit it to the Diet, and the Diet either passes it or doesn’t pass it. But the idea of actually writing legislation in Diet committees—or even revising them—doesn’t happen here, or very rarely, so this is an opportunity to make the Diet an important site for actual policy formulation.

The second thing he has to do is find ways to appeal to the public for support. The key to effective political leadership in a democracy is the power to persuade. For American politicians this is common sense. Obama was tireless in trying to convince the public to support his health care reform and to use public support to pressure Congress to go along. But few Japanese politicians operate from this assumption. Koizumi did, but he was the exception. The question is whether Prime Minister Kan will be able to communicate to the public, build support for his policies, pressure the opposition parties to compromise and forge policy agreements across party lines. I am not very optimistic and if he does not succeed, the political system will be immobilized.

QUESTION: Advances were made by women legislators in the most recent election, with Renho being one of top vote garners. Do you think this indicates a trend?

CURTIS: There are a couple of trends going on. One is that there are more professional women in Japan who are interested in careers in politics, such as Yukari Sato and Satsuki Katayama, both of whom were defeated in the last lower house election and came back and won in the upper house election. These are serious women who have had serious careers before entering politics. But the sample is still small because women have had few opportunities for advancement. The disadvantages of being a woman in Japan are still greater than in other countries.

The other trend is for parties to run women simply because they’re pretty or because they have name recognition. This is demeaning to women. There are a lot of women in politics who are there because the LDP and the DPJ thought they could win for reasons that have nothing to do with politics. So, ironically, I think the larger number of the women reflects a kind of chauvinistic mentality.

Renho was a TV announcer, but she’s also a serious politician. The motivation for running so many women, though, reflects values in this society that partly explain why women are disadvantaged in professional life.

QUESTION: What are the foreign policy implications of the DPJ administration? How will the alliance with the United States be affected?

CURTIS: The United States wants to have a good relationship with Japan and that means having a close and positive relationship with the Japanese prime minister. But ever since Koizumi left office, there hasn’t been a prime minister who has survived more than a year in office. So while the desire to have a strong relationship is there, there is a natural reluctance to invest a lot of time and energy in developing personal relations with a government leadership unless you can be fairly confident that they’re still going to around for awhile. The combination of political instability in Japan and the controversy that emerged over the issue of relocating the Marine Air Station at Futenma has made it difficult for the United States and Japan to engage with each other as fully as they should on larger issues, like the environment, energy, nontraditional security threats, and how to cooperate in ensuring stability in East Asia.

QUESTION: Talk of hiking the consumption tax probably cost the DPJ the election, but the fiscal situation is something that must be addressed. How should the public debt be dealt with?

CURTIS: Unlike the situation when Ryutaro Hashimoto or Noboru Takeshita was prime minister, the majority of Japanese seem to feel than an increase in the consumption tax is unavoidable. Unfortunately, because of the way Kan raised this issue, he actually set back the timing of introducing an increase.

Increasing the consumption tax without having some kind of strategy to increase growth, though, will only depress the economy. So this has to be part of a broader tax and spending reform package. One thing Japan could do to increase government revenue without a tax increase is to introduce a taxpayer identification system. If every taxpayer had the equivalent of the social security number used in the United States there would be far less tax evasion.

Coming back to the election results and the long-term positive effects of “creative destruction,” last year’s lower house election produced the biggest turnover of the members of parliament since the purge under the Allied Occupation. The LDP will no doubt increase its seats in the next lower house election and that too will bring in new people into the Diet, so over a period of five years or so, there’s going to be hundreds of new Diet members. There are seventy to eighty DPJ politicians serving as cabinet ministers, senior vice ministers, parliamentary secretaries and the like. They are gaining experience in how to run a government and over time some of them will emerge as impressive political leaders. New blood in the Diet will result in changes in the relationship between politicians and bureaucrats, and the Diet will play a more central role in policymaking. In the long term, these are positive, creative developments, as the system will become more transparent and politicians will come to understand that you really have to persuade the public.

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