Friday, May 29, 2009

LDP and DPJ—Peas in a Pod? So? I Think the Electorate Wants to Let’s See How the DPJ Does.

This was intended to be a post elaborating something I said here in response to the third comment from LB. However, while I was away from my blog for a couple of days, I found that LB had returned with yet another fascinating (and very long) comment addressing that and other matters. I don’t know if I have the time today to deal with that and other comments that have come my way during that time, but I promise I’ll get to them, and take note of it when I do.

Regarding the DPJ, I think everyone including the DPJ themselves needs to see how (and with whom) it governs before a major realignment becomes a realistic option. It is becoming clearer that the erstwhile anti-Ozawa forces in the DPJ led by Seiji Masehara and Yoshihiko Noda are coalescing and Katsuya Okada is being drawn into their circle as a leader. But they are also intent on winning the Lower House election for the DPJ and will join a Hatoyama administration, if and when it happens, with enthusiasm and do their best to make it work. As policy wonks, they probably can’t help it anyway. The more serious governance issues are likely to be caused by the DPJ’s coalition partners formal and informal, the People’s New Party and the Social Democratic Party respectively. The PNP reportedly wants a massive, three-year public works spending program and a rollback of Post Office reform—wishes, if granted in full, would turn the calendar back to the pre-Koizumi era. The SDP, given its leftist leanings—the moderates defected to what is now DPJ some time ago—are likely to push an anti-business, anti-market agenda. On the foreign policy front, the DPJ may have problems of its own with the United States if it pushes too hard against the status quo in Japan and the near abroad, a course of action which the SDP will endorse and then some. So Upper House help from LDP defectors (or the New Komeito) may be a welcome alternative here. Not that I can point to any specific scenario that places the DPJ at such a juncture, but I think that the possibility is there.

In this respect, it’s also important to note that there’ are good reasons why the distinction between the two major parties blurs on close inspection. The Japanese electorate—and here I am speaking in the collective to simplify my story—likes universal healthcare and public pensions, for which it is more or less resigned to eventually paying more taxes. It also does not want the government to own and run businesses. In other words, we the Japanese voters are social democrats. On the foreign policy front, the Japanese public fears North Korea and is vaguely apprehensive of China but cares only marginally about any turn of events beyond the near abroad. Thus, we the Japanese voters support the Japan-U.S. alliance but give only lukewarm support to a limited, non-combat overseas role for Japanese troops. No Japanese administration can last long while ignoring any one of these desires of the Japanese electorate. Not even a (Shoichi) Nakagawa administration can escape—yes, I can see clearly now—the Yoshida Doctrine. And a DPJ-led administration is no exception.

Having said that, there are a couple of reasons why I believe that having two major parties matter. Within the confines of the national consensus, there are still important choices that Japan as a nation needs to be make, or have the choice made for them by the changing circumstances. It’s a good thing in principle to be in a position to make those choices through the electoral process than through the informal, vested interests-based process that prevails under a virtual one-party rule or the ad hoc deal-making that goes on within the cacophony of a badly splintered legislative body.

Just as important is accountability. The electorate deserves an alternative when the incumbent is not up to the job. Now, if we needed more evidence that the Aso administration is not exactly the A-Team, it has just laid a new one with the Prime Minister’s flip-flop on idea of splitting the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare*. It’s actually three administrations in a row. I think the public needs a break, in more ways than one.

* In a nutshell, Tsuneo Watanabe, the Yomiuri head and major-league dealmaker (he almost brokered a coalition deal between then Prime Minister Fukuda and DPJ leader Ozawa), put forth the idea in an advisory group for the Prime Minister, and Aso liked the idea and told Cabinet Ministers to look into it, but backed off in the face of opposition from his own party including the popular MHLW Minister Masuzoe—all this happening in the space of two weeks and in full public view. The idea itself is not without merit, but the problems vexing MHLW predate its creation in 2001 from the Health and Welfare Ministry and the Labor Ministry. One more Minister will do little to fix all the management and solvency issues of the public pension system, to give prominent example.

ADD: The notion of taking kindergartens away from the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology and putting them together with MHLW’s daycare centers and putting them under one of the two new Ministries also got shot down in the bargain.

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