Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The DPJ begins work on regime change

In a remarkable coincidence, the day after the DPJ's victory in the general election — and the day the DPJ began its transition in earnest — was the same day that ministries and agencies submitted their spending requests to the ministry of finance for the Fiscal 2010 general account budget.

The requests totaled roughly 92.13 trillion yen, a 3.58 trillion yen increase over the 2009 general account budget, making it the first over 90 trillion yen. Of the total, 52.67 trillion yen are general expenditures, with most of the remainder going to servicing Japan's national debt and regional subsidies.

Tango Yasutake, the finance ministry's administrative vice minister, stressed the ministry's desire to complete the budget within the calendar year, as is customary. The reason for Tango's emphasizing the ministry's desire is of course because the DPJ, still a few weeks from taking power, wants to halt the process immediately due to its desire to rearrange the budget completely, for the sake of introducing political leadership into the budgeting process and ensuring that programs from the DPJ's manifesto are included in a DPJ government's first budget as per the timeline included in the manifesto.

DPJ leader Hatoyama Yukio has stressed that the DPJ wants to change the budget completely, as the budget does not reflect its desires whatsoever. Apparently Kawamura Takeo, the outgoing chief cabinet secretary, did not get the message sent by the Japanese people on Sunday: Kawamura said Tuesday that because the requests include measures related to economic stimulus, the DPJ should give serious consideration to the requests as they stand. His colleagues also seemed to miss the point of Sunday's election. Ishiba Shigeru, the outgoing agriculture minister, and Kaneko Kazuyoshi, the outgoing transport minister, used the occasion of the post-election cabinet meeting Tuesday to criticize DPJ programs and demand that the DPJ leave programs untouched.

This is the first battle in the DPJ's fight to change how Japan is governed, and it should win: Asahi reports that the finance ministry is trying to exclude obligatory organizational expenses from the DPJ's desire to reshape the budget in its image. Presumably that leaves plenty of room for the DPJ to fix the budget as it desires. In this fight, the timing of the election may have been fortuitous. The bureaucracy is now facing the DPJ fresh from the high of its historic victory, with possibilities for the new ruling party that presumably won't exist once the DPJ moves into government and gets bogged down in governing.

But at the same time, the process would go smoother if the DPJ were to assemble its cabinet lineup sooner rather than later. Despite earlier indications that a victorious DPJ would name the appointees for senior cabinet posts within the first week after a general election — as indicated in the transition plan which according to Asahi is more associated with Okada Katsuya than Hatoyama — Hatoyama said Monday that he would not name a handful of senior appointees before naming the entire cabinet. The whole cabinet will be named after Hatoyama is elected prime minister. It also seems that Hatoyama may be wavering on his desire to appoint only elected officials to leading cabinet posts as he realizes how inexperienced his own party's members are. I strongly disagree with the decision to delay filling the most senior positions early. The transition would presumably go more smoothly with the government's core in place immediately, with the ministers-in-waiting getting their own teams in place and beginning to meet with senior bureaucrats in the ministries. The transition period is critical for the Hatoyama government's proposed national strategy office, which will have a major role to play despite not existing yet. After all, the NSO will be responsible for remaking the budget along lines desired by the DPJ — a point reinforced by Hatoyama's comment that the posts of NSO chief and the finance minister will be stressed jointly. To smooth the transition, the NSO in particular ought to be staffed as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, the press continues to report that Fujii Hirohisa will have a central role in the new government and that he will likely be joined by Kan, Okada, and Naoshima Masayuki, currently the DPJ's policy chief. Again, why wait if it is increasingly clear who will be occupying the leading posts? Filling these positions now would also take a bit of pressure off of Hatoyama — and would help move from abstract, campaign-style pronouncements as in Hatoyama's press conference Monday.

The bureaucracy itself is making its preparations for its new political masters. Bureaucrats have already delivered copies of budget requests to the offices of DPJ incumbents. For the first time, Yomiuri reports, DPJ members' offices are being visited by bureaucrats, in droves, whether or not the Diet members are present. Meishi are being left in mailboxes by bureau chiefs and other officials at levels never encountered by many DPJ members.

But the battle lines are also being drawn. As I argued in my earlier post on the importance of budgeting for the DPJ (previously linked to in this post), the DPJ's battle for budgetary authority will be waged more with spending ministries than with the finance ministry. Chief among them will be the ministry of land, infrastructure, transport and tourism (MLITT — haven't since this acronym, but why not?) and the ministry of agriculture, forestry, and fisheries (MAFF), the ministries with the most to lose from the DPJ's economy drive. Naturally MLITT's budget request was just about at the budgetary ceiling set by the CEFP. It appears that while MLITT has suggested that it might be open to revising its request, the ministry and the DPJ could clash over the construction of Yanba dam in Gunma prefecture and Kawabegawa Dam in Kumamoto — the DPJ called for the cancellation of both projects in its manifesto, meaning that the DPJ will fight that much harder to ensure that they are expunged from the budget. The DPJ's goal is cut 1.3 trillion yen in public works over four years (which, incidentally, shows how much Japan has already cut public works).

MAFF's request, meanwhile, was a 15% increase over last year's budget, an increase that includes a 19% increase in the ministry's public works spending.

MLITT, having shown conciliatory signs to the DPJ and having become accustomed to shrinking budgets, may find a way to accommodate itself to the new regime. Taniguchi Hiroaki, its administrative vice minister, requested a meeting with Hatoyama, a bit later than his colleagues in the leading ministries but still encouraging. Indeed, the ministry has announced that from 11 September it will freeze bidding on the Yanba dam, at least temporarily. The ministry still intends to argue for the dam, for which funds have already been dispersed to neighboring prefectures, but the DPJ probably has the upper hand.

The big fight will be with MAFF, which is truly threatened by the DPJ's income support plan and whose adminstrative vice minister has already traded words with the DPJ.

The DPJ could not have asked for a better start to its rule than to have bureaucrats dispirited and conscious of the fact that for now opposing the DPJ means opposing a public already ill-disposed to the bureaucracy, a public that whatever its doubts about the DPJ's manifesto is perhaps most sympathetic to the idea of political rule. It may be the case that neither side wants a fight for now, the DPJ because to wage open war on the bureaucracy would hinder its ability to get anything done, bureaucrats because for the moment a fight with the DPJ is a fight that they are sure to lose in the court of public opinion.

For more on the possibilities of genuine administrative reform, I recommend this essay by Karel van Wolferen, who is aware of the obstacles facing the DPJ without dismissing the possibility that the DPJ will succeed. I particularly like this sentence: "But my impression is that the individuals of the inner core of the party are deadly serious about what must be done to turn their country into what one of them, the most senior and most experienced Ozawa Ichiro, has in his writing called a 'normal country'."

Exactly so. The DPJ means what it said during the campaign, and is taking the first steps towards a new system of governance.


Anonymous said...

(MLITT — haven't since this acronym, but why not?)

I believe MLIT is the customary English abbreviation:


Don't know why they drop the "Tourism" bit. (Or is it the "Transport" part, so they can hide all that pork from the outside world?)

Marc Sheffner said...

Thanks for this, but particularly the link to the van Wolferen essay. I had not realized that the imbalance in the relationship between Japan's elected politicians and career bureaucrats was so severe, or that it is so different from the situation in "normal" countries. I find that reading some quality history explains a lot of what is happening today. It also saves time. Van Wolferen's essay also helped me understand your blog better. Without an accurate historical map, we cannot see the wood for all the present trees. We cannot properly understand what is happening today just be reading and newspapers and news blogs like yours, however good they may be. I'm looking forward to reading van Wolferen's post about the "architect" Yamagata Aritomo.