Monday, July 27, 2009

The DPJ unveils its manifesto (part one)

At an event at the Hotel New Otani in Tokyo Monday evening the DPJ released its 2009 general election manifesto to the public.

Running to twenty-four pages, the manifesto is centered around five major areas: (1) cutting waste (essentially political and administrative reform); (2) child care and education; (3) pensions and health care; (4) regionalization; and (5) employment and the economy. After providing general outlines of the party's plans in each of these areas, it provides details about fifty-five specific proposals in these five areas, as well as in the areas of consumer and human rights, and foreign policy. While not all of these policy descriptions go into great detail — many are quite vague — the DPJ has provided a concrete plan for how it will go about governing should it win next month's general election. Its priorities are clear and reflect the public's priorities (at least the public's priorities as repeatedly expressed in public opinion polls). There are shortcomings: foreign policy, for example, is a particular weakness, despite the realism of recent remarks by the party's leaders.

Cutting waste: I am glad that the DPJ gave this section pride of place in the manifesto, because it is the most radical portion of their agenda. As far as I'm concerned, the various spending programs that have received much of the attention from the press and the LDP are bread and circuses compared with the party's plans for administrative reform. The title of "cutting waste" isn't mistaken, because the goal of changing how Japan is governed to shift responsibility for the nation's finances from unelected bureaucrats to elected officials serving in the cabinet (as written in Article 73 of the Japanese Constitution). Accordingly, as the heading in the "cutting waste" section proclaims, "Completely rearranging the country's 207 trillion yen general budget."

To do that, the DPJ proposes to ban the practice of amakudari completely, simultaneously reforming public and semi-public corporations and the special accounts that support them; cutting personnel costs by twenty percent (which will be done in part by moving some public services to local governments); making the government contracting process transparent; and reviewing how politicians and bureaucrats interact, which includes the party's proposal to appoint more than 100 ruling party members to cabinet and sub-cabinet posts and provisions for greater transparency in how politicians and bureaucrats interact (this proposal is a bit too vague for me). Also included in this section are proposals for political reform, including a plan to cut the number of proportional seats by 80, which would reduce the number of PR seats to 100 and the total number of lower house seats to 400. This plan would presumably be fiercely resisted by smaller parties in coalition with the DPJ. The DPJ also proposes to ban corporate contributions and fundraising party ticket purchases from companies with contracts with the national government and local governments over 100 million yen.

Finally, and most importantly, the DPJ alludes to making the budgeting process transparent. The manifesto does not include the proposal — included in the party's 300-day transition plan and discussed by Kan Naoto in his Chuo Koron essay (discussed here) — to move budgeting authority to the cabinet entirely, giving elected officials responsibility for collating requests and compiling a national budget. Without a shift of this sort, the DPJ will be hard-pressed to rearrange the general budget completely as it promises.

Complementing this plan for government is the party's plan for internal governance, which is not included in the manifesto but without which the DPJ will not be able to make much headway in wresting power from the bureaucracy. Briefly, having studied LDP rule, it is essential for a DPJ government to control the activities of its members and to disable the party's internal organs. DPJ backbenchers must not be able to undermine the cabinet's plans as outlined in this manifesto. Their responsibility, if not serving in an administrative position, will be to show up for votes and vote in the manner ordered by the government. Under Ozawa Ichiro's leadership the DPJ was criticized for being a "dictatorship:" given the anarchy that has characterized the internal politics of the LDP in recent years, a dose of intra-party dictatorship might not be such a bad thing, especially if the DPJ is going to have to manage complex coalition partnerships. The party has already taken steps in this direction, starting with the decision made a decade ago to replace the party general council with a shadow cabinet. A DPJ-led cabinet would also be strengthened by the weakness of the party's policy research council, which, thanks to the relative lack of information flowing from the bureaucracy until fairly recently, has been under-institutionalized and dependent on outside expertise.

The party's policymaking role would be further diminished by the party's plans for a "national strategy office" under the direct control of the prime minister. While it was not directly referenced in the manifesto, should the DPJ take power this office will be an important actor in coordinating the DPJ's plans for the transition from bureaucratic to political rule. The office will be responsible for compiling the budget and drafting foreign policy documents. Its staff will include as many civilians as bureaucrats and its head will have ministerial rank (and will likely be occupied by the head of the policy research council). Hatoyama Yukio has further stressed that the creation of the national strategy office would contribute to undermining the power of the administrative vice ministers' council, which Hatoyama wants to abolish outright. Hatoyama should probably listen to Kan — one of the few DPJ leaders with ministerial experience — who, while noting the pernicious influence of the council, acknowledged that it may be beyond the power of the government to abolish it, as it could very easily reemerge under a different name. In Chuo Koron, Kan suggested that it might be better to include it in the policy process by introducing political appointees into the meetings. Ultimately the DPJ may be better off developing the power of cabinet institutions instead of combating the administrative vice ministers directly. If a DPJ government could credibly establish a top-down policymaking process the administrative vice ministers' council may simply wither away.

I am not under the illusion that the DPJ will be able to write all of its administrative reform proposals into law. I have doubts about various proposals included in this section of the manifesto (will the DPJ really be able to send more than 100 political appointees into the ministries? what does the DPJ plan to do with the retiring bureaucrats cast into a labor market still unaccustomed to hiring workers mid-career?). But I do think that the DPJ is aware of the challenge it faces in implementing this portion of its agenda — and knows that building a Westminster system, in which politicians in the cabinet wield administrative power in full view of the public, is critical to making progress in tackling the other policy areas in the party's agenda.

(Part two here.)


gkanai said...

Very much looking forward to the rest of your in-depth review of the manifesto.

Innos said...

Great article, can't wait for the other part(s). :)
I checked out the manifesto, and under cutting waste topic 6, there's even a plan to lift the ban on internet campaigning. Another election, another try. When will this law eventually be amended?

Innos said...

Oh, btw., I'm currently browsing through old manifests, and I found, that in 2005 and 2007 the plan to reduce seats by 80 was already formulated in the DPJ-manifest. So it's on their political radar for quite some time...

Tobias Harris said...


Thanks for that. One thing I'm not doing is going back in comparing previous manifestos — but you're right to do so. There are plenty of proposals in this manifesto that the DPJ has been advocating for years now. For example, the DPJ's administrative transition plan — which lurks in the background of the first part — was drafted in 2003.

SOMA said...

Given your insider knowledge I am somewhat pleased to know that the DPJ understands the building of a Westminister style system is key to the implementation of a lot of reforms generally speaking.

That said, even in a Westminister system bureaucrats from larger ministries have an information advantage over new ministers in new governments in particular and that can make it difficult for some of the more original ideas from some of the smaller ministries to bubble up through (assuming that the incumbent government realises some of their promises were a little bit over the top/unrealistic). I know this firsthand unfortunately, and envy the one ministry in our new government who has a minister with experience and can call BS when he sees it.

Innos said...

I usually don't compare old manifestos either, but this article gave me the idea to check them for POEL-amendments, to see how long the DPJ officially campaigns with the lifting of net-campaign bans. Quite some time now... And I saw the draft for reducing seats while doing this and found it interesting.

Uh, part 2 is online. :)

Bryce said...

Humphrey Appleby was part and parcel of the Westminster system too. You may be able to stop political secretaries having formal meetings, but they will probably still meet in Japan's equivalent of the gentlemen's clubs. I'll leave it to your imagination what those might be.

Anyway, one of the problems with Japan's political parties is that they are TOO democratic. Leader selections in parliamentary parties aren't supposed to by ballot, they are supposed to be coups. I suppose I could see the point of interparty democracy under the old electoral system, where the public did have the choice to vote for different strands of the LDP, who would then represent them in LDP leadership elections, but now the competition has switched to a choice of party brand, I see no reason why internal selection should be transparent. If voters don't like it, well there is the next election to turf the party out, something that never happened under the LDP.

No sure I like the abolition of 20 PR seats, though. Coalition government does act as an important inter-election check.

Tobias Harris said...


At this point forcing the Applebys of Japan to meet in "gentlemen's clubs" would be an improvement.

I appreciate Kan Naoto's article precisely because he recognizes that destroying the bureaucracy is unrealistic, and, moreover, undesirable. The task is clarifying responsibility — i.e., providing a different answer to Johnson's question of who governs Japan.

As in Yes Minister, the bureaucracy will push back and try to have its way. It will often succeed, and perhaps it should. Appleby, after all, did work to prevent Hacker from various follies. It's for the same reason that I think the more important measures are the ones not included in the manifesto, efforts to subordinate party to cabinet. Administrative reform is as much about removing the ruling party from the policy process as it is about whacking the bureaucracy.

Accordingly, I wish the DPJ didn't indulge in bureaucracy bashing quite as much as it did in the manifesto, but I guess there's some political advantage to doing so.

Anonymous said...

So what are the odds of DPJ winning the election?

shinsengumi said...

Interesting that the DPJ is looking to cut down on the PR seats. A party obviously will not seek to change the electoral system unless it believes it would benefit from it, but I wonder if it will backfire, for one of two reasons:

(1) If I recall correctly, the DPJ got most of its seats from the PR ballot during the last general election. As such it is likely that its vote share will actually go down -- unless, of course, one considers the Koizumi-orchestrated LDP landslide in 2005 to have been a fluke.

(2) Public opinion for both the LDP and the DPJ are fairly low. An attempt by the DPJ to marginalize alternatives to the two large parties might not be met with much enthusiasm by the electorate.

Not being in Japan, I have no finger upon the political pulse there so these are just theoretical conjectures.