Thursday, August 20, 2009

Japan's next finance minister?

As the DPJ was finalizing its proportional representation lists for the 30 August general election, one name was inserted at the last moment onto the party list in the South Kanto block: seventy-seven-year-old Fujii Hirohisa. Fujii had previously announced his retirement after a long career that included service in the finance ministry that ended at the level of budget examiner; two terms as an LDP member of the upper house; and six terms as a member of the lower house for the Japan Renewal, New Frontier, Liberal, and Democratic parties. Most importantly, he was the finance minister in Hosokawa government. But it seems that at the urging of Hatoyama Yukio he agreed to run one more time.

The reason for Hatoyama's wanting Fujii to run again is obvious. The DPJ desperately needs experienced hands if and when it forms a government. On Thursday Okada Katsuya, the DPJ secretary-general, alluded to Fujii's being at the center of a Hatoyama government. But Hatoyama has also quite rightly said that the most important posts in the government should go to Diet members. So naturally Fujii finds himself running once more. It also does not hurt that Fujii is close to Ozawa Ichiro, as the list of parties to which Fujii belongs suggests.

I have previously written of Fujii's position on how to change the budgeting process to give politicians a bigger role: his pragmatism may be the perfect approach to get the DPJ at least through to the 2010 upper house election, and probably longer. As important as any task facing the DPJ in its first months and years in office is convincing the public (and investors) that the DPJ has a competent and steady hand on the tiller at the finance ministry. It might also be received as a gesture of good faith by the finance ministry itself, making it easier to get the ministry to sign on to the party's plans.

I still think that the DPJ might push for more radical changes after a transition period, but Fujii could at least help ensure that the DPJ will last longer than a year or two. The DPJ, having few members with any cabinet experience whatsoever, needs all the help it can get. Some might question is age, but, after all, in 1998 Miyazawa Kiichi returned to the finance ministry just shy of his seventy-ninth birthday and served in the job for more than two years, the longest a finance minister had served since the Nakasone cabinet.

Given Hatoyama's questionable leadership abilities, picking good cabinet members is that much more indispensable for a Hatoyama government to succeed. Fujii would be a good start — and by requesting that Fujii run once more, Hatoyama has at least demonstrated that he knows he will need qualified people around him in government.

Now to solve the Ozawa problem...


Soma said...

I still find the idea that the MOF would not "sign on" to the party's plans amazing. I understand why in the Japanese context given the history, but it still boggles the mind as someone who has been through a few budget rounds in a similar "Mixed" Westminister system. All the more so because the Cabinet in NZ is a constitutional convention - Japan is quite unusual in that executive power is constitutionally invested directly into the Cabinet rather than executive head of state.

Anonymous said...

As the example of Koizumi Junichiro shows, it is dangerous in Japan to invest too much power in the head of state rather than in the Cabinet. The UK went through a difficult time under Tony Blair during the runup to the Iraq invasion. As is well known Blair bullied the Cabinet, withheld information about his meetings with Bush and violated UK and international laws. Outspoken Claire Short, minister of international development, for one, resigned in protest after she could no longer tolerate Blair's irresponsible leadership.