Monday, September 14, 2009

The strengths and weakness of Mr. Hatoyama's government

After meeting with Ozawa Ichiro Monday, it appears that Hatoyama Yukio will get Fujii Hirohisa as his finance minister after all. The party's executive board — comprised of the inner circle of party leaders, including Hatoyama, Ozawa, Kan Naoto, and Okada Katsuya — has approved the roster, which will now go before the party's board of governors Tuesday evening for final approval, the evening before the two houses of the Diet will pick a new prime minister. Meanwhile, Ozawa will have full discretion to choose the DPJ's executives.

While the prospective cabinet lineup will not be announced after this evening's meeting, its membership is becoming increasingly clear. An anonymous source close to Hatoyama referred to the cabinet as an "all-star cabinet." Strip away the hyperbole and there is considerable truth to the idea that Hatoyama has picked a cabinet of DPJ heavyweights, even without knowing the identities of more than half the likely cabinet ministers. Kan and Okada will now be joined by Fujii. Other names mentioned include party group leaders Maehara Seiji and Noda Yoshihiko, and Sengoku Yoshito, a senior party leader close to Maehara. Nagatsuma Akira will be joining the cabinet in some capacity, possibly as the minister responsible for the new "Administrative Renovation" council that will work to trim waste for the government's budget. Naoshima Masayuki, an upper house member currently serving as the chief of the party's policy research council, could enter the cabinet as minister for economy, trade, and industry.

Hatoyama is also providing more details about the national strategy bureau. Addressing Okada's concerns that the bureau will step on his turf as foreign minister, Hatoyama stressed Monday that the bureau's primary task from its creation will be drafting a framework for the 2010 budget. It is still unknown how the bureau will function and who will be appointed to it — Kan, its director, will have the power to shape its work but has said nothing about his thoughts for how it should work, prompting Sankei to warn darkly about the "ambitious" Kan's power in the new government. (Apparently the "opposition" newspaper has tired momentarily of warning about Ozawa's power over the new government.) But of course we do know something about how Kan wants the cabinet itself to function: he wants cabinet ministers to do the heavy lifting through cabinet committees, especially in drafting the budget, suggesting that he would be reluctant to turn the national strategy bureau into a shadowy office unaccountable to other members of the cabinet. I am more confident that the NSB will serve the cabinet with Kan in charge than if another politician were made responsible for the bureau. It also seems that only DPJ members will staff the office: no SDPJ or PNP members will be included in its ranks. Excluding the DPJ's coalition partners from the office that will play an important role in shaping the government's agenda reinforces the idea that the DPJ is trying to limit the ability of its coalition partners to veto its policies.

It does appear that Hatoyama, far from being a presidential-style prime minister towering over his cabinet, will in fact be first among equals, the head of a committee of powerful politicians. The core of the cabinet will be comprised of some of the most experienced politicians the party has to offer, politicians who are distant from Ozawa and have their own followings within the DPJ, critical because a strong cabinet will have to keep Ozawa from bullying the government and its prime minister. Hatoyama may have won his first skirmish with Ozawa, but it is unlikely to be the last. (Indeed, part of me wonders whether the whole thing was staged in an effort to have Hatoyama get his way over Ozawa on some issue to show that Hatoyama is in fact in charge.) It will take the collective leadership of the cabinet to push back against Ozawa and prop up Hatoyama, a task of which Sengoku, among other prospective cabinet members, are acutely aware.

And what of Ozawa? Despite the Fujii "incident," there is still little evidence to suggest that Ozawa will be anything but respectful of the cabinet's authority. Yomiuri continues to warn of the danger of the "140-person" Ozawa group, although it buries an important caveat in its long article on the potential power of Ozawa: unlike LDP factions, DPJ members often belong to more than one group. The article also notes that Ozawa has already turned his attention to next summer's upper house election, leading me to wonder just how much energy Ozawa will have to spend on meddling in the policymaking process. Thus far there is still little evidence that Ozawa plans to use his veto power to do anything but keep the DPJ in line.

With the Hatoyama government's birth a day away, it bears asking two questions. First, what are the greatest weaknesses facing the Hatoyama government? Second, what strengths will work in the government's favor?

Weaknesses: Arguably there are three major weaknesses that could undermine the Hatoyama government and shorten its lifespan.

Hatoyama Yukio: I have been critical of Hatoyama in the past, and little has changed to make me any more impressed with his ability to lead the government.

In particular, I worry about his dealings with the press. The most recent example is a slip of the tongue in a press conference Monday in which he referred to "Ozawa Daihyo [party president, Hatoyama's title and Ozawa's former title" before correcting himself and saying "Ozawa Daiko [acting president, Ozawa's current title]." It is a minor gaffe that could be the result of fatigue, the similarity between the two words, and the fact that Hatoyama spent years saying "Ozawa Daihyo" when he was secretary-general before succeeding Ozawa as party president. But the point is that Hatoyama tends to be loquacious, which during the campaign prompted some in the DPJ to suggest that Hatoyama was being kept from the press to prevent him from saying too much and having to backtrack. The party is considering ending burasagari press conferences entirely, although it is unclear what will replace them. Will the Hatoyama government ultimately act like the Bush administration, keeping its head from appearing before the media in anything but the most controlled settings? (Bush was of course notorious for avoiding press conferences.)

The DPJ will not be able to hide Hatoyama from scrutiny — there is, after all, the unfinished matter of his campaign finance records — and if Hatoyama appears to not be in control of his own government, the press will naturally lambaste the prime minister for lacking the necessary centripetal power. Hatoyama may be first among equals, but he still has to be first. How will he keep himself from being overshadowed by his own cabinet? And if Hatoyama is regularly before the public, how can the DPJ prevent him from making damaging gaffes will still adhering to its commitment to transparent government?

Ozawa Ichiro: There is little to say here beyond what I have already written about Ozawa's role as secretary-general. The DPJ is taking a risk by concentrating such extensive powers in Ozawa's hands. The possibility exists that he could abuse it, forcing the government to negotiate its policies behind closed doors with Ozawa to secure his and the party's approval for every piece of legislation.

The media: Perhaps I should list the media as the greatest threat to the Hatoyama government. The Japanese media are politically powerful, and trusted by the public. The media can amplify small gaffes and mistakes, spinning them into a narrative that will undermine public confidence in the government. We've seen it happen with enough LDP governments in recent years to know how this process works. Public opinion polls conducted by media organizations are taken seriously by political leaders. And all of that is before taking into account the conservative media organizations who have made it their goal to undermine the DPJ government from even before it takes office.

The danger is of a vicious cycle. Imagine that a gaffe by Hatoyama results in a wave of negative media coverage — not just in the conservative press — that results in a sharp drop in public opinion polls. (Feel free to substitute a scandal implicating Hatoyama or Ozawa for a gaffe, or leaks from bureaucrats about the incompetence or malfeasance of some DPJ sub-cabinet member.) The drop in public opinion polls leads to panic within the cabinet and the DPJ. Maybe Ozawa decides to take a more active role in policymaking. Newspapers run articles noting that anonymous cabinet members are concerned about Hatoyama's leadership or Ozawa's influence. Perhaps some suggest a reshuffle. The media then repeats rumors of a reshuffle ad nauseaum, leaping on every hint. Faced with growing calls for a reshuffle — naturally he will be questioned by reporters in press conferences about his plans for a reshuffle — Hatoyama might waver, resulting in editorials about the prime minister's indecisiveness, which then becomes a leading theme on the wideshows. And so on until he is driven to resign. This is just one example, but the process is certainly familiar enough.

The government's survival will depend on breaking this cycle, whether by appointing an official to serve as a dedicated press secretary in place of the chief cabinet secretary and manage a government information office that will control how the cabinet communicates with the public or dissolving the press club system to break the power of the major media organizations. Perhaps both will be required. Whatever the solution, unless the DPJ changes how it communicates with the public via an at least partially unfriendly press, the Hatoyama government will be at its mercy. And for various reasons, both Hatoyama and Ozawa heighten the risks posed by the media.

: But the Hatoyama government is not doomed to fail, but at least not immediately. (All governments fail sooner or later.) It has several strengths working in its favor.

Policymaking: The DPJ takes power with clear ideas for how the government should formulate policy. It has studied how the Hosokawa government failed to develop a coherent policymaking process in 1993-1994, the pathologies of LDP rule, and strengths of the Westminster system and developed its own plans accordingly. Given that the DPJ's transition plans date to as early as 2003, the party has been thinking about how it would govern for most of its existence. In senior leaders have written at some length about the failings of the LDP system and offered detailed proposals for how to build a new policymaking process. Indeed, DPJ leaders have probably thought more about how to change policymaking than any other area of reform. In the weeks leading up to the birth of the new government, the DPJ has indicated that it will put these ideas into practice.

I have already written about the DPJ's emerging policymaking system, so I will only summarize it here: the goal is to create streamlined, top-down cabinet government that shifts the balance of power in policymaking in the cabinet's favor at the expense of the bureaucracy and the ruling parties. The cabinet will lead in budgeting through the national strategy bureau; cabinet committees composed of small numbers of ministers will take the lead in crafting policies for specific areas, while a DPJ-SDPJ-PNP committee within the cabinet will review the government's policies as a whole so to include the coalition partners in policymaking; Hatoyama's senior-most cabinet ministers have considerable prestige of their own and will constitute an inner cabinet, a steering committee that helps the prime minister override opposition from within the cabinet.

But this new policymaking system is only a means to an end: if the policymaking process at all resembles how it looks on paper, the cabinet should have considerable power to make the bureaucracy follow its lead in implementing the DPJ's campaign promises, and, when those plans inevitably conflict with reality, this system should give the cabinet the power to decide how to alter the party's policy plans. It should give the DPJ-led government the ability to try trial-and-error policymaking as it tackles the host of problems facing the government. The new policymaking process does not guarantee success, but a more flexible cabinet stands a better chance of making progress.

Ozawa Ichiro: Appointing Ozawa as secretary-general may be risky, but it is a risk that could pay off. As I've written previously, concentrating veto power in Ozawa's hands gives him power to challenge the government — but it also gives him the power with which to crush opposition from the DPJ's backbenchers. With Ozawa as secretary-general, the policy research council and other party organs will not wield the vetoes that their LDP counterparts wielded under LDP rule.

A public mandate: It is difficult to determine the precise nature of the DPJ's mandate. It's probably a fruitless exercise: it is impossible to say that the public supports this portion of the manifesto but not that portion. What is clear that when it comes to changing how the government functions the DPJ has the public's support. And just as the media can create a vicious cycle, so can the public support for a new policymaking process lead to a virtuous cycle for the DPJ. Using public support against bureaucratic and media opposition to its new administrative plans in order to win the day, the DPJ will then be free to use its newfound policy tools to implement portions of its agenda to prop up its public approval and win elections. Public support fades, but it doesn't have to collapse as it did for the Aso government.

These strengths and weaknesses are far from comprehensive — I said relatively little about how the bureaucracy might oppose the DPJ (it mostly involves using the media) — but I think these lists capture the dynamics that will shape the incoming Hatoyama government.

I may be overoptimistic, but given its focus on getting the policymaking process right, I think the DPJ stands a good chance of making real progress in changing Japan for the better. The Hatoyama government will undoubtedly make mistakes, there are still too many unanswered questions, and the scandals hanging over the heads of Ozawa and Hatoyama could shatter the government's support at any moment — but the DPJ is at least making decisions now that could set it down the path of success.

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