Sunday, April 26, 2009

Combating Botchan rule

The Japanese political establishment is debating how to combat an infestation that has penetrated Nagata-cho and is allegedly gnawing away at the foundations of Japanese democracy.

I'm speaking, of course, of Japan's hereditary politicians, who constitute roughly a quarter of the members of the two houses of the Diet.

The debate has grown out of an internal LDP debate. Earlier this month, Nakagawa Hidenao and Suga Yoshihide announced the creation of a new study group with the stated purpose of issuing recommendations for the LDP's electoral manifesto — but triggering speculation as to whether Nakagawa is once again looking to undermine the Aso government. The twenty-member group, composed mostly of younger reformists, met with journalist Tahara Soichiro on 16 April to discuss visions of Japan's future and its "national strategy," which is a typical enough agenda for this sort of group. (Nakagawa's activities led to a rebuke from the Machimura faction leadership, which suggested that if he wants to undertake these cross-factional projects, he should leave the faction.)

One of the group's goals is introducing restrictions on hereditary politicians into the LDP's manifesto; conveniently, Suga, the deputy election strategy chairman, is the prospective chairman of the project team responsible for drafting the manifesto. Not surprisingly, the prospect of restrictions has been poorly received by LDP members. One third of the party's Diet members are hereditary members. Eleven of seventeen ministers in the Aso cabinet are hereditary representatives. Whatever the merits of restricting hereditary politicians, for the LDP to include such a proposal while fielding such an extraordinary number of hereditary politicians would be both the height of absurdity and a gross insult to the public. The Aso government has criticized the motion. The prime minister himself said he wasn't sure how is defined for legal purposes.

But Nakagawa has pressed on, declaring on Thursday that he will not pass his seat along to his two sons. (This strikes me as an easy promise for him to make while alive and not close to retirement.)

At the same time, the DPJ, sensing an opportunity, has stressed the importance of restricting hereditary politicians. A survey of DPJ Diet members conducted last week found that nearly sixty percent favor restrictions on hereditary members and Okada Katsuya, head of the DPJ's headquarters for promoting reform, has moved to include the issue in the DPJ's manifesto. The DPJ is rushing to ban candidates from running the same districts as political relatives within three degrees of kinship. Okada has gone so far as to suggest that the issues of contention in the forthcoming election will be "hereditary politics and donations."

This last quote from Okada speaks volumes about why this issue is emerging to the fore now. Okada appears to have finally decided to act like a possible successor and rival to Ozawa Ichiro for leadership of the DPJ, and with the hereditary politics issue he has an issue that enables him to undermine Ozawa while attacking the LDP (while encouraging divisions within the LDP by reaching out to the embattled Suga). It is an obvious means of attacking the LDP and its core of hereditary members, while putting pressure on Ozawa to go, because after all wouldn't it be hypocritical for the DPJ to campaign against hereditary politics while headed by a hereditary politician? "Hereditary politics and donations" might be Okada's vision of the general election campaign, but it could just as easily be his slogan in a battle with Ozawa. Ozawa, after all, inherited his seat some forty years ago. Okada has already questioned publicly Ozawa's explanation for the Okubo scandal, and he and others in the party may be getting ready for Okada's triumphant return to the DPJ leadership as the face of clean government.

Meanwhile, for LDP politicians pushing this plan it is an obvious attempt to reinvigorate the Koizumian "new LDP," with the irony being of course that at the center of this debate is Koizumi Junichiro's son Shinjiro, who is expected to run for the seat being vacated by Koizumi pere.

But despite this growing tempest, I remain unconvinced that banning hereditary politicians will make the slightest bit of difference in how Japan is governed. I still don't see how such a ban would be constitutional, given that Article 14 prohibits "discrimination in political, economic or social relations because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin." As I remarked previously, banning hereditary politicians from running in the same district as relatives — arbitrarily defined — sounds like political discrimination on the basis of family origin to me. I do not doubt the intentions of Okada, Suga, Nakagawa, and others when they state that they support restrictions in order to lower barriers of entry to new candidates. But it seems that there are other steps to take that might be even more effective (and constitutional) means of enabling new candidates to run. Okada recognizes this, and argues for voluntary restraints in the nomination processes of the parties.

But why not talk about lifting the restrictions on campaign activities which strictly curtail political activities, the laws that limit when and where political speeches can be made, where posters can be placed and what can be placed on them, which technologies can be used and when, etc.? Japan's campaign laws naturally favor incumbents who get free publicity thanks to be sitting Diet members and also encourage hereditary politicians to enter politics, family name being one of the critical assets from candidates.

I frankly fail to see why dealing with the "hereditary politics" problem is so urgent, aside from the aforementioned political benefits to those pressing for restrictions. I am still unconvinced that hereditary leaders are any better or worse than non-hereditary politicians. And if it is a problem, it is certainly not a problem that should be at the center of the forthcoming electoral campaign. Japan has simply too many problems to waste an election campaign on the question of whether Japan is governed by botchans. Fix Japan's broken institutions and shine more light on the policymaking process and I suspect people will be amazed by how much better the system works, even without swapping the current crop of politicians for a new one untainted by inheritance.


Adam said...

Let's not forget that Dem party-head Hatoyama Yukio is a 4th generation politico and son of a former PM. While I respect his intellect (as opposed to his nefarious lunkhead brother, "hang 'em high" Kunio) neither I nor others I have talked to are entirely comfortable with Bocchans in politics.

In short, are they a cause or result of the rot? Those who choose the former want reform; the latter (as yourself) advise restraint.

Of course, humble beginnings don't always beget good politicians, and good politicians don't always beget good policy. Look to the US for examples.

Back to Hatoyama Yukio: Good column in the Asahi yesterday about how the DPJ in-fighting over Ozawa's future may not be good for the future of his leadership neither. Yukio is being pinchered btw the sides -- Ozawa retire vs Ozawa stay -- and may bear some of the blame if the party loses big in the next election.

Talk about snatching defeat from the jaws of victory...

Bryce said...

The problem really lies in the koenkai, which were partly created to get around the advertising restrictions that you mention. Having funding and support organisations whose first loyalty is to a local individual rather than a political party is poison in parliamentary politics. You are quite right. Banning politicians based on a genetic link to their predecessors won't make a jot of difference. If you ban hereditary politicians without getting rid of the koenkai, or at least subordinating them to the party structure, then politicians will just hand-pick their younger friends as their successors.