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Japan: The DPJ prepares for its first steps towards a new style of government

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In Brief

The general election may be a day away, but the DPJ's position in the polls seems secure and so the party is acting like a 'responsible party' and putting plans in motion for its transition into government.

I have written of the names mentioned for the leading positions in a Hatoyama cabinet — but naming politicians to the leading cabinet positions as early as next week is but one of the party's plans for the first days after an electoral victory.


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In order to hasten the formation of a cabinet, the party has reportedly already begun vetting some 200 politicians who could be apppointed to the cabinet, the new national strategy office, and the new administrative reform and decentralization council whose task will be to identify areas where the government can cut waste from the budget. The goal is to have the cabinet lineup set before the new Diet is convened to choose a new prime minister. As for the vetting process itself, it seems that it is focused mostly on the political suitability of prospective appointees: namely, the state of their political finances and whether they have any past or present indiscretions that might embarrass the government (women, money troubles, etc.). I am a bit dubious about the process itself — as Sankei reports, the DPJ, lacking the government resources that have been available to the LDP when forming cabinets, is basically conducting open-source investigations using newspapers and weeklies, as well as talk in a candidate’s hometown to gather information. But at least it’s a start, and Japanese journalists are remarkably well informed. (I hope and presume that they’re talking to journalists and not just reading articles.)

But beyond laying the groundwork for quickly staffing up a Hatoyama government, DPJ leaders are trying to set the tone for the party’s first months in office. Kan Naoto’s remarks on foreign policy — discussed here — are for better or worse part of this trend. I am more impressed with the party’s initial moves regarding preparations for administrative reform.

Plans for the national strategy office are being finalized. The party plans to staff the office with ten Diet members, and gave them the power to oversee not only the budgeting process, but foreign policy and administrative personnel decisions. The Diet members will be joined by ten outside experts, and the plan is ultimately to amend the National Government Organization Law to legitimate the office.

As for the administrative reform council, its membership will include Diet members, outside experts, and representatives from the National Governors’ Association and six local groups. The council will have a role in the budgeting process, mostly by looking for ways to economize so that the DPJ might be able to afford its manifesto.

The DPJ, moreover, is considering plans for reorganizing the government’s tax commission, mainly by scrapping its party tax commission. The government’s tax commission has long existed alongside the LDP’s tax commission, with the latter being the more important of the two. The DPJ’s plan is to make the finance minister the chair, the internal affairs minister the vice chair, and to fill the commission with parliamentary secretaries responsible for taxation from ministries and agencies. This reform follows the same principles of the DPJ’s other administrative reform plans: put politicians in a position to oversee and instruct the work of bureaucrats.

The bureaucrats themselves continue to brace for the likely arrival of their new DPJ overlords. The first skirmish will be over the second FY2009 supplementary budget, portions of which the DPJ has made clear it wants removed. In a speech in Fukuoka Tuesday, Fujii Hirohisa, the likely next finance minister, repeated the party’s call to remove spending related to Prime Minister Aso Taro’s so-called ‘anime palace’ (AKA the ‘state-managed manga kissa‘) and other public works spending from the supplementary budget and replace it with unemployment benefits and other spending directed to the immediate needs of Japanese citizens.

It is a worthwhile question whether the DPJ can actually follow through on its desire to introduce a policymaking process centered on politicians in the cabinet. Indeed, it is the central question facing a likely DPJ government. Journalist Shiraishi Hitoshi, writing in the monthly magazine Foresight, looks into the party’s manifesto for clues as to whether the DPJ will be able to succeed in reforming Japanese governance. Not unlike LDP reformists like Nakagawa Hidenao, Shiraishi sees a number of points on which the DPJ appears to have compromised previously espoused principles and thus constitute warning signs of the DPJ’s going soft on the bureaucracy. Most notably, he cites the absence of a proposal for radical decentralization (either the creation of a state system or the outright elimination of the prefectural level of governance) and the absence of the party’s earlier call to demand resignations from top ministry officials, which he argues will undermine the impact of more political appointees and the proposed dissolution of the administrative vice ministers’ conference. He is also concerned that the party will not be able to deliver on its proposed 20% cut in administrative personnel expenses and that the party will end up working hand-in-hand with the finance ministry.

I think Shiraishi makes some fair points, but on the whole I am less worried. I have no doubt about the DPJ’s desire to accomplish consequential administrative reform once in power. But revolutions are not won by zealots; they are won by the realists capable of making tactical compromises with the old guard in order to outlast their enemies. The DPJ not only has to reform Japanese governance — it has to last long enough in power to do so. Nothing would undermine a DPJ government quicker than to declare open war on ministry officials, which would likely result in an endless stream of leaks, sabotage, and foot-dragging on the part of Kasumigaseki, a unified Kasumigaseki, which would in turn undermine the DPJ’s ability to deliver on some of its promises in advance of the 2010 upper house election. And as for joining hands with the finance ministry, the finance ministry may prove to be the DPJ’s best friend in Kasumigaseki during the early days. The DPJ has no greater enemy than ministries like the ministry of agriculture, forestry, and fisheries, whose work has been deeply integrated in the LDP machine. It is these ministries that are especially threatened by the DPJ’s plans to cut waste, and it is the finance ministry that is keen to cut waste. I have previously expressed my support for the DPJ’s ‘realistic’ turn in administrative reform, because I think it signals a recognition on the part of the party’s leaders that the fight for administrative reform will be a long one and that they are better off dividing and ruling the administration than facing a Kasumigaseki united against the DPJ.

Fujii characterized it thusly: ‘The LDP is currently beneath Kasumigaseki. We will place Kasumigaseki under the DPJ. It is imperative to have a system that uses Kasumigaseki.’ The DPJ cannot govern alone. It needs to be able to use the talent and diligence of the national administration in order to realize its plans, imperative to remaining in power, which is in turn imperative to reforming the government over the long term. Administrative reform still will not be easy, but at least the DPJ appears to recognize that it is a goal to be pursued steadily and patiently.

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