Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A new dawn?

On Thursday, Masuzoe Yoichi, former minister of health, labor, and welfare and the most popular politician in Japan, will inform the LDP that he is exiting the party. On Friday, he will announce the formation of his own party (for now, the Masuzoe New Party), which is projected to have enough members to clear the five-member minimum to be considered a party and be eligible for public election funds. Whether and how many LDP members will follow Masuzoe out remains to be seen, but if Masuzoe has decided to exercise his exit option instead of trying to reform the LDP from within, who among the LDP's reformists will continue to try to force the party's leadership to change its way?

Masuzoe's decision comes after the LDP virtually dared Masuzoe to leave: at a meeting of LDP Diet members last week, several members suggested that if Masuzoe isn't willing to work with the executive he should leave. Similarly, Tanose Ryotaro, head of the LDP's general council, recently questioned Masuzoe's sincerity.

Perhaps one sure consequence of Masuzoe's departure is that it will spell the end of the LDP as an important factor in Japanese politics. The LDP does indeed appear hellbent on its own destruction. Instead of taking Masuzoe's criticisms seriously, the leadership instead goaded the one politician that LDP candidates can stand to be seen with into bolting the party. Just as the LDP quickly turned its back on Koizumi Junichiro's agenda once he left the premiership, the LDP seems determined to reject any politician from within its own ranks who wants to drag the party into the twenty-first century. Now stripped of the interest groups that supported it for so long, the LDP has failed to reinvent itself for the age of floating voters and is rapidly becoming a loose alliance of koenkai. As more politicians leave the party, it becomes harder to imagine that the LDP will ever adapt.

Where does that leave the Japanese political system?

On the whole, it might make the DPJ-led government better. The Masuzoe New Party and Your Party surely stand poised to pick up a decent share of seats in this summer's House of Councillors election. In doing so, they will force the DPJ-led government — assuming that the government does not call a double election, which seems a reasonable assumption after Sengoku Yoshito was roundly criticized for raising the idea — to cobble together a coalition in the upper house in order to pass its legislation (or else governed by the cumbersome Article 59 procedure). Both Masuzoe and Watanabe Yoshimi and his colleagues in the YP are serious about policy, and in Masuzoe's case in particular, he is serious about addressing the social concerns of the Japanese people. Having to negotiate with these two parties may make the policymaking process more unwieldy (counter to the spirit of the government's administrative reforms), but it may result in better policy. And when the government fails to measure up, they will be formidable critics, much more formidable critics than the LDP has been in opposition.

Moreover, as I've argued before, Masuzoe's departure will put pressure on Hatoyama Yukio and Ozawa Ichiro as a DPJ member's threat to exit the party has more power with Masuzoe's party as a destination. That's not to say that the new party will immediately trigger an exodus of DPJ members but it does raise the likelihood that Hatoyama will face a revolt, perhaps from within his own cabinet with the likely failure to solve Futenma by the end of May the convenient excuse for the palace coup. Even if Hatoyama and Ozawa survive until the HC election, a defeat in that election could clear the way for new leaders who will be better able to deliver upon DPJ's reform program.

Replacing the LDP with a motley group of small parties may not seem like an improvement, but with Masuzoe in the mix, that group immediately has stature that it would not otherwise have. Masuzoe is not about to ride a wave of popular support into the premiership, not without a general election being called (and Masuzoe's defection probably makes a snap election even less likely). The DPJ will now face opposition parties that can credibly challenge the DPJ to live up to its own promises for reform.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

On the Hatoyama government's troubles

I have an op-ed in Friday's Wall Street Journal Asia on the Hatoyama government's struggles.

You can find it here.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Washington continues to see Japan slipping away

Writing on the nuclear summit, Al Kamen, who pens a Beltway gossip column in the Washington Post, had the following to say about Hatoyama Yukio:
By far the biggest loser of the extravaganza was the hapless and (in the opinion of some Obama administration officials) increasingly loopy Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. He reportedly requested but got no bilat. The only consolation prize was that he got an "unofficial" meeting during Monday night's working dinner. Maybe somewhere between the main course and dessert?

A rich man's son, Hatoyama has impressed Obama administration officials with his unreliability on a major issue dividing Japan and the United States: the future of a Marine Corps air station in Okinawa. Hatoyama promised Obama twice that he'd solve the issue. According to a long-standing agreement with Japan, the Futenma air base is supposed to be moved to an isolated part of Okinawa. (It now sits in the middle of a city of more than 80,000.)
But Hatoyama's party, the Democratic Party of Japan, said it wanted to reexamine the agreement and to propose a different plan. It is supposed to do that by May. So far, nothing has come in over the transom. Uh, Yukio, you're supposed to be an ally, remember? Saved you countless billions with that expensive U.S. nuclear umbrella? Still buy Toyotas and such?
Ignoring the snide and demeaning comments about Hatoyama's being "increasingly loopy" and "a rich man's son" (what does this have to do with anything?) or the comment suggesting that the "expensive U.S. nuclear umbrella" and US consumers' purchases of Toyotas are acts of charity, Kamen managed to sweep aside all the complexity of the Futenma dispute in the course of a few paragraphs.

This item may be another sign of what I referred to last month as the "losing Japan" narrative. Due to Hatoyama's "loopiness," the US is losing an important ally and increasingly finding it necessary to "bow" to China (see the first paragraph of the column). Naturally media outlets inside Japan have already reported on Kamen's comments, with the subtext that Hatoyama is embarrassing Japan abroad even as the US and China move closer together.

For the record, Mr. Kamen: Japan is a sovereign, democratic nation allied to the United States, not a vassal. However poorly Hatoyama has managed the problem, he is trying to balance the concerns of his country's most important ally with the concerns of the voters who elected him. He certainly deserves better than to be denigrated in this fashion.

UPDATE: I have changed the name of this post to reflect the fact that Kamen's column reflects not just a narrative popular at the Washington Post — although the Post has thus far been its main mouthpiece — but a narrative increasingly popular in Washington and in the Obama administration.

Why Hatoyama is failing on Futenma

Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio returned home to Japan Wednesday after attending the Nuclear summit in Washington hosted by US President Barack Obama. Whatever significance the summit had for Obama's diplomatic agenda, as far as US-Japan relations are concerned nukes were overshadowed by Futenma. Hatoyama's self-imposed deadline of resolving the dispute by May is approaching, and there are few signs that his government will be able to reach a conclusion that satisfies the US and local communities in Okinawa by the end of next month.

Indeed, on the eve of Hatoyama's trip the government announced that it would be holding off on opening working-level talks with the US because it did not yet have a plan to present.

While the press is filled with rumors regarding the various alternative sites under consideration by the Hatoyama government, there is no sign (yet) that the government is coalescing around a single option.

Even if the dispute is resolved favorably (whatever that means), it is safe to say that in terms of the process, the Hatoyama government's approach to Futenma has failed. What explains the Hatoyama government's disastrous performance on the Futenma issue? Why has the government performed so poorly on an issue that has taken on such importance for the government?

The Prime Minister: On Futenma, the buck has to stop with Hatoyama, something that Josh Rogin identifies as a major source of dissatisfaction in Washington. Despite the importance of this issue — despite Hatoyama's willingness to invoke the Japanese set phrase ("I'm risking my political life") to signal this issue's importance for his government — Hatoyama has been wholly absent from this debate. There is no excuse. Even if Hatoyama wanted to respect the policymaking process by letting his cabinet ministers debate the matter, on an issue as thorny as Futenma Hatoyama ought to have been taking the lead. As AEI's Michael Auslin notes in Rogin's piece, there is no sign that Hatoyama has a preference regarding an alternative to the current relocation plan.

I would argue, however, that Hatoyama is indecisive not because his party is unruly or filled with conflicting opinions. Has there ever been a political party in a democracy that did not house differing opinions on important and not-so-important political issues? As I've argued before, I think that the DPJ's divisions are an issue to the extent that Hatoyama has created a void at the head of the government. Hatoyama does not appear to have concrete preferences about any policy area, not just Futenma. He has shown little command of policy specifics, and has not yet moved past speaking in bland generalities.

On Futenma, I also think Hatoyama deserves considerable blame because I think he thought that he could rely on personal diplomacy with Obama in lieu of a concrete alternative plan. His government's audience, however, was not the president but working-level officials in the US who have mastered the details of the current plan and most alternatives over the course of years of negotiations with the Hatoyama government's predecessors. Hatoyama seemed to think that if he could just reach an understanding with Obama, the details would take care of themselves. 

When the Hatoyama government is no more, "Trust Me" may well be the epitaph on its tombstone.

The Cabinet: Perhaps the cabinet doesn't deserve its own heading, seeing as how many of the flaws in cabinet's policymaking process are the result of Hatoyama's vacuousness, but since anonymous officials in Rogin's piece see the "process" as a problem, it is worth addressing this argument.

The cabinet is responsible to the extent that the debate has not been contained within the cabinet committees responsible for addressing the issue. The debate between Foreign Minister Okada Katsuya and Defense Minister Kitazawa Toshimi has, for example, played out in the pages of the nation's newspapers. The process has been unruly and haphazard, with no apparent logic to how the government considered various alternatives to the 2006 roadmap.

The cabinet — or perhaps more specifically Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirano Hirofumi — also deserves the blame for failing to develop a communications strategy on Futenma from the beginning. At various points in time Hirano has interjected to remind ministers and the public that all options (including the status quo) are on the table, that the government is proceeding from a "zero base." What should of happened is that from the beginning the prime minister, the chief cabinet secretary, and other ministers should have stressed its message plainly — particularly to the Okinawan people — and announced its process and criteria for weighing alternatives. It should have set out its own roadmap for deliberations instead of merely setting a deadline.

Again, at least some of the blame for the cabinet's dysfunctions rest with Hatoyama for creating a permissive environment. The dysfunction may also to a certain extent be a consequence of the bumpy transition to a new policymaking process based on cabinet government, in which all ministers are responsible for the government's policies instead of just the policies of their ministries (hence Okada's stressing the importance of unity among ministers). The Futenma problem is the first major test of the new system, and the government's failure should be seen in that light.

Coalition politics: Another argument to account for the dysfunctional government looks to the DPJ's coalition with the Social Democrats and the People's New Party. Hatoyama is indecisive, this argument goes, because he is trying to keep his coalition partners — especially the Social Democrats — in the government.

I am inclined, however, to see the coalition explanation as one of the least significant when it comes to explaining the Hatoyama government's behavior.

First, there is enough dissatisfaction with the 2006 roadmap within the DPJ to suggest that even without the SDPJ being in government the Hatoyama government would still have tried to find an alternative plan. The SDPJ has perhaps complicated the process through its cooperation with activists in Okinawa and its own efforts to find an alternative site, but these activities have had at worst a marginal effect on problems that would have plagued the Hatoyama government even without the SDPJ's involvement.

Second, while some point to the SDPJ's threat of pulling out of the government should the air base stay in Okinawa, there is considerable reason to doubt the SDPJ's ability to follow through on a threat to withdraw from the government. Indeed, SDPJ members themselves have questioned the idea. The fact is that the SDPJ gains little from abandoning its seat inside the Hatoyama cabinet, and party members know it. From the prime minister's perspective, were he to find an alternative plan that the US would accept, it seems doubtful that he would back away from it on the basis of SDPJ grumbling.

The DPJ: What about divisions within the DPJ? Even if Hatoyama can safely ignore the SDPJ, has he been hindered by divisions within his own party? This view is popular in Washington, where it is taken as common knowledge that the DPJ is an incoherent, dysfunctional party. I have never been convinced that the DPJ is any more divided than the LDP was during the height of its power — and I am convinced that it is less divided than the LDP today.

On the Futenma question in particular, it is hard to see how the "divided DPJ" has undermined the government. The DPJ as a whole — like the cabinet — is largely in agreement on the need to develop an alternative plan (this includes "pro-US" DPJ politicians). While there may be some disagreement on the question of whether the alternative site should be inside or outside of Okinawa, I see no reason to believe that Hatoyama's indecision is the result of undue consideration of one view or the other, or that the party's backbenchers would not fall into line if and when the government reaches its conclusion.

To the extent that there is a division between government and party over Futenma, it is the role played by Secretary-General Ozawa Ichiro that matters. Throughout the process, Ozawa has spoken out against any plan that keeps the replacement facility in Okinawa, consistent with the party's old "Okinawa Vision" paper that called for moving the base first out of the prefecture, then out of Japan entirely.

But again, it is worth asking what the process would have looked like had Ozawa been on the same page as the government. Has Hatoyama been indecisive because he was too solicitous of Ozawa's opinion? Has Ozawa forced the government to consider alternatives outside of Okinawa that it would not otherwise consider? At this point it is hard to say for sure, but even if Ozawa was on the same page as the government the Hatoyama government would have struggled to develop an alternative.

Ideology: Related to explanations based on party or coalition politics is an explanation based on ideology, that the whole dispute is the result of some kind of reflexive anti-Americanism on the part of the Hatoyama government.

As I see it, this argument is patently false. Were the Hatoyama government acting on the basis of a desire to boot US forces from Japanese shores, there would be no Futenma problem. The government would say "Yankees go home" and that would be the end of the story. That the Hatoyama government is searching so hard for alternatives — including alternatives within Okinawa — is evidence of its desire to maintain a constructive relationship with the US that includes US forces stationed in Japan, not evidence of its desire to undermine the relationship. The Hatoyama government's flailing about is evidence of its good faith in trying to find a solution that will satisfy all parties to the agreement.

Double-edged diplomacy: At the heart of the matter is, of course, the relationship between the central government, the Okinawan prefectural government, and local communities, all in the shadow of the alliance with the US. Beyond Hatoyama's deficiencies and beyond party politics in Tokyo like the complicated game being played between these actors.

Accordingly, even as one criticizes the Hatoyama government's approach to the Futenma problem, it is necessary to acknowledge that the Hatoyama government inherited a mess from the LDP. The LDP's approach to the roadmap was to reach an agreement with the US first, and local communities later. Between 2006 and 2009 very little had been done to secure the ratification of the people of Okinawa, who polls show as overwhelmingly opposed to the current plan. Prefectural and local officials have actively opposed both the current plan and alternative plans that would keep a replacement facility in Okinawa. According to the Okinawa Times, mayors of thirty-four of the prefectures forty-one municipalities will be participating in a mass public meeting on 25 April to oppose relocation inside Okinawa. The Okinawan public feels "betrayed" by the Hatoyama government and will, if anything, increase the pressure on the government.

One can debate the extent to which public anger has been fueled by the DPJ's raising expectations in Okinawa only to dash them once in power, but local concerns would be important regardless of the Hatoyama government's behavior since taking power.

The US government has been equally inflexible when it comes to the 2006 roadmap. To a certain extent, the US bears responsibility for upping the stakes on Futenma. By leaning hard on the Hatoyama government from its first weeks in office — starting with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates's blunt message for the new government — Washington trapped the Hatoyama government between its perceived promises to the Okinawan people and its need to be seen as a responsible steward of Japan's most important bilateral relationship. Every action taken by the Hatoyama government thereafter was amplified, plugged into the narrative of the "crisis" in the relationship growing out of the Hatoyama government's understandable desire to revisit the 2006 roadmap.

While there are signs that the US might be willing to compromise if and when the Hatoyama government provides a detailed alternative, the damage has been done. By raising the stakes for the Hatoyama government, the US government made it less likely that it will get what it wants, a quick agreement along the lines of the 2006 agreement that speeds along the process of relocating Marines to Guam.

These arguments suggest that while some tension over Futenma may have been unavoidable, both the Hatoyama government and the Obama administration could have taken steps to minimize the damage to the relationship and the Hatoyama government. Had the Hatoyama government established a coherent, insulated policy review process from the beginning and communicated to the US the modesty of its aims (while trying to lower the expectations of the Okinawan people) and had the US government recognized the Hatoyama government's good faith and given it some room to maneuver domestically, the tension in the US-Japan relationship could have been avoided.

As it stands, the Hatoyama government is trapped. If it accepts the current agreement unchanged after months of posturing, it will undoubtedly face considerable opposition from a public that will ask what it was all for. If it presents a plan featuring an alternative location in Okinawa, it risks outrage in Okinawa and rejection by the US. If anything, the Hatoyama government's best option may be presenting the US with an alternative plan featuring a site outside of Okinawa, which would both appease the Okinawan public and force the US to vote up or down. Would this outcome be perverse? Absolutely, and it would  ikely ensure that the issue would remain on the agenda for months to come. But it seems like the only option open to the Hatoyama government as it tries to escape a trap of its own making.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Ozawa will stay home

On a visit to Tokyo in February, Kurt Campbell, the US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, met with embattled DPJ secretary-general Ozawa Ichiro and extended an invitation to visit Washington. Ozawa said he would visit on the condition that he be able to meet with President Barack Obama. At the time I suggested that since Ozawa's visit could undermine the Hatoyama government's tortuous process of reviewing the 2006 agreement on the realignment of US Forces in Japan, he should keep his Washington meetings as perfunctory as possible — and also wrote that "perhaps it would be better off if an Ozawa visit to Washington fell through."

The visit has in fact fallen through: on Wednesday it became clear that Ozawa would not be going to Washington during the Golden Week holidays and will instead be going sometime after this summer's Upper House election. According to the Yomiuri Shimbun, a number of DPJ officials suggested that by going to Washington Ozawa would raise the specter of "dual diplomacy." Asahi similarly suggested that the trip has been postponed so as to not cast a shadow over the Hatoyama government's ongoing effort to find a solution to the Futenma problem.

While some will fret that Ozawa's not going to Washington after having taken such a high-visibility trip to Beijing last year sends a signal that the DPJ is more interested in good relations with China than with the US, it would be a mistake to interpret the decision to postpone in this light. If anything, it should suggest that perhaps too much value was attributed to Ozawa's trip to China in the first place.

I remain convinced that it is an unqualified good that Ozawa will not be in a position to intervene in diplomacy over Futenma at a critical moment for the Hatoyama government. Any expectation in Washington that Ozawa holds the key to solving the impasse over Futenma rests on a distorted impression of Ozawa's power within the DPJ-led government, an especially distorted impression now that the one thing the public is largely in agreement on is the desirability of Ozawa's being removed as secretary-general and that Ozawa has been forced to tolerate criticism from DPJ members. Indeed, reminiscent of the idea in American politics that power in a presidential administration depends on physical proximity to the Oval Office, Asahi suggests that a "new troika" may be forming, composed of Hatoyama, Finance Minister Kan Naoto, and reform czar Sengoku Yoshito, as the latter two now have offices in the Prime Minister's residence.

The solution to the Futenma dispute will ultimately depend on the prime minister and his cabinet, which is why Watanabe Kozo, a senior DPJ legislator, suggested that Hatoyama would have to step down in the event that he fails to resolve the dispute by the end of May. The real risks of Ozawa's further complicating the process is not worth the trivial symbolic benefits that would come from Ozawa's trip.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Yosano-Hiranuma alliance of convenience

Michael Cucek has already pondered Yosano Kaoru's thinking behind his strange alliance with arch-revisionist Hiranuma Takeo — which has resulted in party that will supposedly be called Stand Up Japan! (the SUJ? As if Your Party wasn't bad enough) — but there's another factor beyond the electoral factors considered by Cucek.

The alliance is a marriage of convenience in policy terms for both Yosano and Hiranuma.

As I've argued in the past, if the revisionist conservatives have a blind spot, it is a patent inability to speak intelligently about economic problems (which was one reason why the appointment of the late Nakagawa Shoichi as finance minister so puzzling). They love symbolic politics — they love making the case for why, in the grand sweep of history, their program of revising the constitution, reinvigorating Japanese arms, and defending traditional culture is imperative. When it comes to speaking convincingly about the economic insecurities faced by Japanese families, however, they fumble, as the government of Abe Shinzo (and Abe's decision to campaign in the 2007 upper house election on constitution revision) so clearly illustrates. Not only can they not emote on economic issues, they just have nothing new or interesting to say when it comes to solutions to the problems plaguing the Japanese economy.

If there's one thing Yosano can do, it's economic policy, having long fought a lonely battle within the LDP for fiscal reconstruction. Whatever other considerations are going through his mind, we should not forget his emphasis on forthrightly explaining policy proposals to the nation. Indeed, he wrote a whole book on this idea, a book in which he comes across as wholly sincere.

As such, Stand Up Japan! is an alliance of convenience for both its progenitors. I expect Yosano will have a free hand to push his economic agenda of choice without having to compromise as he did within the LDP, while Hiranuma will have a vehicle for inserting the revisionist agenda into election campaign without having to worry about having something to say about the economy.

Whether this chimera of a party will survive is another matter entirely, but it does pose a major risk to the LDP. Now that there are neo-liberal and revisionist LDP splinter parties it's possible that the collapse of the LDP could pick up speed. Partisans from both camps within the LDP now have parties to which they can comfortably escape, which would leave a rump party in the hands of the old guard, which has stood for nothing but holding power. And out of power, what purpose will the LDP serve other than serving as work relief for aging politicians? The party might linger on as a loose coalition of hereditary politicians who can keep winning on the strength of personal support, but even then, how much longer will the aging members of the koenkai of LDP politicians have the power to return their man?

As unlikely as it seems, Stand Up Japan! could be a serious, even mortal blow to the LDP.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Can the DPJ legislate a new relationship with the bureaucracy?

On Tuesday, the House of Representatives began debate on the Hatoyama cabinet's bill revising the National Civil Service Law, the first of three cabinet bills intended to introduce political leadership to be considered in the Diet (the others being bills establishing the national strategy bureau and increasing the number of sub-cabinet political appointees).

If passed, the revision will, among other things, introduce a Cabinet Personnel Bureau (CPB) attached to the Cabinet Secretariat. The cabinet will be able to control the promotion of senior civil servants — administrative vice ministers, division chiefs, and section chiefs — with the cabinet selecting senior bureaucrats from a list with an eye towards not just ability but also the willingness to perform, as suggested by Sengoku Yoshito, Hatoyama's administrative reform czar in an interview in Asahi's Globe section. The expectation seems to be that the government would move senior officials laterally, away from their "home" ministries, in the hope of overcoming compartmentalized administration. When asked whether appeals to expertise could render the revision a dead letter, Sengoku questioned whether the Kasumigaseki's level of expertise is as high as assumed, although when pressed he suggested that perhaps the Finance Ministry's budget bureau will enjoy a certain degree of insulation. Another reform included in the bill would enable the CPB to demote officials.

Looking over this plan — which shares certain features with plans for a basic law produced under by the LDP, and which has in fact been criticized by the LDP and YP leader Watanabe Yoshimi for being weaker than the Aso government's plan — it is unclear to me what exactly the government hopes to achieve. Sengoku stresses the importance of overcoming compartmentalization. This plan may be effective to this end, but I wonder whether it raises other problems in its place.

Under the Thatcher government, the British civil service faced a prime minister who intervened aggressively in civil service personnel administration, which had perverse consequences for the civil service. Traditionally, the job of British civil servants was to provide advice and options for ministers as they went about implementing the cabinet's program as outlined in the party's manifesto. Bureaucrats would push back against ministers, they would do their best to dissuade ministers from making poor choices, but ultimately they served political leaders as a matter of professional duty. Under Margaret Thatcher, bureaucrats became more circumspect about the advice they dispensed to political leaders as prospects for promotion became linked to sticking with the government's program, and were more inclined to tell ministers what they wanted to hear instead of offering frank advice. In other words, security in office for civil servants was linked to the quality of service that they provided political leaders. Colin Campbell and Graham Wilson consider the changes that occurred under the Thatcher government to have been so consequential as to have marked the "end of Whitehall."

Accordingly, it is unclear from this legislation how the government intends to ensure that the bureaucracy will provide quality guidance to the government when the bureaucrats will have incentives to please political leaders.

I understand why the Hatoyama government feels obligated to enshrine reform in law, as it gives the government's reform agenda a symbolic permanence that it otherwise lacks. And it it is understandable why in the near term the Hatoyama government wants to be able to control senior-level personnel appointments. It needs to sever whatever links remain between the bureaucracy and the ancien regime. Under LDP rule, after all, the LDP and the bureaucracy developed a symbiotic relationship, in which the party preserved the prerogatives of the bureaucracy while the bureaucracy served as a policymaking staff for the party and cooperated with LDP backbenchers' desires to direct national resources to particularistic ends. To build a new system that DPJ needs to be able to forestall sabotage, shirking, or foot dragging on the part of the bureaucracy.

But I would argue that the most effective reforms to the policymaking process have been those that have limited interaction between bureaucrats and backbenchers, and intra-party reforms that have sharply limited the ability of backbenchers to participate in policymaking. Without being able to play backbenchers off against the cabinet, bureaucrats have already had to accommodate DPJ rule to an extent that few expected.

As for the goal of building a politically neutral civil service that dutifully serves the government of the day, perhaps the only way to build such a civil service is regular changes in ruling party. The British civil service has been described as "politically promiscuous," willing to serve any government even when successive governments have contradictory aims.  If there is not regular alternation in power, the bureaucracy will wind up simply shifting its loyalties to the new long-term ruling party, bending to the interests of the ruling party instead of dispensing guidance with an eye towards national and public interests.

In short, the process of building a new policymaking system will require at least as much change in the minds of actors in the system as change in formal institutions, if not more. As the DPJ comes to see the bureaucracy not as a hostile remnant of the ancien regime but as the source of expert advice, as the bureaucrats come to recognize the legitimacy of a government in power on the basis of a public mandate for its electoral program and come to recognize that there is a realistic chance of a different party with a different program taking power, the system will change to something approximating top-down political leadership. The new system will not come about through bullying the bureaucracy — except perhaps in very rare instances — but through the bureaucracy's recognizing the role it has to play in the new system, and the DPJ's (and whatever ruling party succeeds it) recognizing that no advanced industrial democracy functions without an effective civil service.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Exit, voice, and loyalty in the LDP

On Saturday, Yosano Kaoru, onetime contender for the LDP presidency and the Aso cabinet's second finance minister, met with LDP President Tanigaki Sadakazu and filed notice that he will leave the party from next week. Sonoda Hiroyuki, Yosano's ally who was forced to resign as a deputy secretary-general last month over criticism of Tanigaki, is expected to follow Yosano out of the party soon.

Both are said to be considering joining up with Hiranuma Takeo, the postal rebel who refused to rejoin the LDP with other erstwhile rebels in 2006. Hiranuma has been talking about forming a conservative party that could serve as a "third pole" in Japanese politics since at least October 2007, in the immediate aftermath of Abe Shinzo's stunning fall from the premiership. After years of hinting at creating a new party, Hiranuma apparently feels that the time is right now, and he will launch his party sometime this month so to prepare to contest this summer's House of Councillors election.

That Hiranuma has waited until now to launch his party suggests to me Hiranuma hopes to fill an electoral niche that does not exist. Where is the demand for another conservative party? Who is clamoring for Hiranuma's third pole? As I've argued before in regard to Hiranuma's quest to build a "true" conservative party, the project is little more than fantasy.

So what of Yosano's unusual alliance with Hiranuma, given that Yosano has been anything but an adherent of the "true" conservatism? No one seems to have a good explanation for it. Sonoda suggested that if they form a new party, it would be close to the LDP in policy terms, in other words, the Hiranuma new party, unlike Watanabe Yoshimi's "neoliberal-ish" Minna no tō, would not be carving out a new niche for itself.

What does Yosano's decision to leave the party mean for the LDP? Following on the heels of Hatoyama Kunio's departure — making Yosano the second Aso cabinet member to leave in under the span of a month — Yosano's departure appears to suggest that exit is growing more attractive to would-be reformers. That's not to say that there aren't LDP members exercising voice. Tanigaki is under relentless pressure from LDP members to initiate sweeping party reforms or get out of the way. This past week a meeting of 50 LDP members met to advocate the dissolution of the factions, to which Tanigaki could only say that if they didn't like factions they didn't have to be in them. Meanwhile, Nakagawa Hidenao criticized the LDP president for failing to stand up for postal privatization in his debate with Prime Minister Hatoyama. And Masuzoe Yoichi continues to be the most vociferous critic of Tanigaki and the LDP executive, castigating the party's leaders for "lacking the will, the ability, and the strategy" necessary to lead the LDP.

But despite the exercise of both exit and voice by LDP reformists, Tanigaki continues to enjoy the support of an inner circle of faction leaders and other party chieftains, at least judging by their silence. Yosano, like Masuzoe, is a maverick, albeit a prominent maverick. Not belonging to any faction, Yosano is if anything best know for his lonely fight in favor of fiscal austerity and open calls for a consumption tax increase, positions that did not earn him a wide following within the LDP. Neither Yosano nor Masuzoe, however, has the numbers to back their actions and force the party's chieftains to act against Tanigaki, at least not before the election.

Both exit and voice in this situation appear to depend on both volume and magnitude: were a faction leader to take his faction out of the party en masse, or to dissolve his faction voluntarily and side with the reformists, those actions might be enough to push the LDP in a new direction. But for now the party is fighting the same battle it has been fighting since Koizumi Junichiro left the premiership. The old guard controls the party, as the reformists, marginalized, struggle to organize and utilize the media as a weapon against the party's leaders. The difference now seems to be that exit has become an increasingly attractive alternative due to public dissatisfaction with both the DPJ and the LDP.

The LDP may yet survive, but it will take lots more voice — or lots more exit — before the party's leaders stand aside and allow the reformists to begin remaking the party so to better compete in a more competitive political environment.