Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Why the Hatoyama government matters

As the Hatoyama government's approval numbers have faltered and more recently plummeted, as reports about the inappropriately large role being played by Ozawa Ichiro in the government (despite not being a cabinet minister) have grown, as doubts about Hatoyama Yukio's abilities as a leader have deepened, and as the court of public opinion internationally has handed down the verdict that the Hatoyama government is not only embarrassing to Japan but "risky," I have struggled to keep an eye on the big picture. The twenty-four-hour news cycle makes it difficult to do so: our attention spans shortened, we expect immediate results and solutions to problems that have emerged over years and decades and will take nearly as long to solve. Every drop in public opinion polls triggers panic, every note of discord becomes a crisis, and, closer to home for this Bay Stater, every by-election holds the fate of the nation in the balance.

But given that Japan is in the midst of unprecedented political change, it is essential to take a longer view, to not get so bogged down in cabinet bickering or opinion polls and to consider why the DPJ government matters in the first place.

Many analysts — U.S. alliance managers impatient for Japan to play a wider security role regionally and globally, investors hungry for supply-side reforms — implicitly measure the Hatoyama government's successes and failures on the basis of its progress in advancing their policy goals for Japan. (I don't think it would be wrong to say that these groups are nostalgic for the days of Koizumi Junichiro.) Others might measure the government's success in terms of whether it deliveries on its manifesto promises. Still others might look to raw economic indicators. Few analysts, if any (myself included) have articulated what success and failure mean for a DPJ government. We are sailing in uncharted waters. We do not know how to judge this new government. Should it be judged by the above standards? By comparison with the LDP? If so, which LDP? With Koizumi's LDP? With Koizumi's successors? With foreign governments? How do we judge this government?

In the longer term, we will have to judge it on the basis of its policy achievements — ultimately any democratic government will bejudged on whether the voters believe that they are "better off" since the government took power than before — but for now, a mere 100 days into the Hatoyama government, there is but one way to judge the Hatoyama government. Is it restoring the Japanese public's faith in their government?

The "lost" decades did not just erode Japan's prosperity. It also eroded the public's confidence in their elected officials and public servants. Corruption, trillions of yen of wasteful spending, non-responsive institutions, stymied reform, the promise and despair of the LDP during and after the Koizumi years: the combination of these developments was to shred whatever trust the Japanese people had in their leaders. They watched as their institutions struggled to restart the economy, as poverty increased, as public services withered and even vanished from some corners of the country, as pensions vanished. The election of the DPJ was both evidence of the extent of the breakdown of public trust — at last the voters would try another party — but also of the limits of the public's cynicism, as they were willing to see whether another party could do better.

Accordingly, the DPJ's mandate, above administrative reform, above economic reform, above pensions reform, is restoring the Japanese people's trust in their government. The Japanese government has to be made transparent and accountable. The Japanese people deserve to know what their government has done and will be doing in their names. Because few of the problems that Japan faces can be solved without the government's being able to ask for sacrifices from the Japanese people — and the Japanese people will not accept sacrifices, particularly financial sacrifices, unless they can trust the government that is asking for them. How, for example, can Japan build a more robust welfare regime without raising taxes? And how can the government raise taxes if the public does not trust the government to use the public's money wisely and transparently?

The Hatoyama government has to restore public confidence in Japan's political leadership. Reform that weakens the bureaucracy and strengthens the cabinet helps, but it is not enough. The government has to look like a government that can be trusted. None of the problems facing Japan can be solved if the government does not have the trust of the people. And it is for this reason that Ozawa is a problem.

The Tokyo Public Prosecutors Office may well be fighting a spirited battle on behalf of the old guard, as Michael Cucek argues. But to a certain extent that is besides the point. In going all out to defend Ozawa, the Hatoyama government risks looking like anything but a force for greater transparency and accountability in Japanese politics. Even if he manages to survive this latest investigation, Ozawa still ladens the DPJ with his and Japan's recent political past. At some point the Hatoyama government will have to break with Ozawa simply because any government that depends on Ozawa will have to contend with his tendency to secretiveness, his messiah complex, and his political baggage, a terrible combination of qualities.

I recognize that Ozawa is still in some ways indispensable for the DPJ, seeing as how he is able to control the party's backbenchers and manage the party's elections. But it may be worth losing his skills if it helps the DPJ rebuild public trust and pass the reins to a new generation of political leaders with the public confident in the government and some reforms already in place. Because ultimately the Hatoyama government is something of a placeholder, a transitional government from LDP to post-LDP government. The problems facing Japan took years to emerge, and solving them — and adjusting to relative decline — will take just as long or longer to resolve. It will be on Hatoyama's successors to make the greatest progress in fixing them, but whether they will be able to succeed will depend on whether Hatoyama is able to restore the public's trust in government.

That is how we should observe the Hatoyama government. Its policy successes and failures matter. Its budget deficits matters, although I am with Taggart Murphy in wondering whether the Japanese government might have more time than many think when it comes to its indebtedness. But above all, its conduct in the eyes of the Japanese public matters. And on this score, it is simply too early to declare one way or another — although the resolution of this latest Ozawa affair could have considerable significance in determining whether the DPJ is able to rebuild public trust.


Ed said...

It matters for democracy.

I'm looking at this from an American perspective, but an increasing problem in the world is the situation where an opposition party beats the incumbent party in an election, takes office, then continues the same policies as the former incumbents, even to the extent of going against campaign promises or continuing policies they continued in the election campaign. This has been going on well beyond the "butskellism" or consensus politics the 1950s era Economist ridiculed.

It means that voters will sensibly come to the conclusion that there is no point in voting, since there is no connection between voting and government policies, and groups seeking change will increasingly act outside the electoral arena (which is bad for all sorts of reasons).

I'm not sure what is behind this trend, but if the DJP can't actually change Japanese government policies and practices in a few key, visible areas it will confirm that the bureaucracy governs Japan and elected politicians are just their spokespeople.

Soma said...

My take above - I agree and while you have said it more eloquently I really have the feeling that the Japanese want more than anything/something consequential to happen in the political sphere and a clean government that does nothing would be a small victory. It does not appear to me that the DPJ and Hatoyama have a choice but to carry on - much in the same way that replacing Aso just before the last election just would not have been viable no matter how bad things got - with the main exception being that the DPJ has the opportunity to turn this around with some wins on the policy front.

booster said...

Another great piece. I had no idea you were so liberal! Btw, is Ozawa that bad? His book 'blueprint for a new japan' rings as true as a bell. So it the book all horse sh*t? Takao from the Orien Econ is very, every anti-Ozawa. Is Ozawa really 'evil'? as he was described to me by a great commentator?