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Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2011
Leading a nation in crisis
Democratic Party of Japan lawmakers on Monday chose Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda as the party's new chief. On Tuesday, the Diet elected him as Japan's new prime minister, succeeding Prime Minister Naoto Kan.
He leads the nation at a time when it is in the grip of helplessness because of the effects of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, the crisis at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, and economic difficulties due to deflation and the stronger yen.
Although the March 11 disasters and the nuclear fiasco have caused a national crisis, the Kan administration could not act quickly enough to support people who badly need help and to reconstruct the country. Mr. Kan's lack of leadership and of sound political judgment, combined with a divided Diet (opposition forces control the Upper House), deepened people's distrust of the DPJ government and government, per se.
Mr. Noda should realize that now is the last chance for the DPJ to prove its capabilities as a governing party and to restore people's trust in politics.
None of the candidates in the DPJ race presented a clear vision of the future Japan. Mr. Noda must enunciate such a vision to give people hope in the future, now threatened by a weak economy and deterioration of social safety nets.
In the DPJ presidential runoff, Mr. Noda came from behind to beat trade and industry minister Banri Kaieda, who was supported by former DPJ chief Ichiro Ozawa, by a 215-to-177 vote. In the first round of voting, Mr. Kaieda garnered 143 votes, against 102 votes for Mr. Noda, 74 votes for former Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara, 52 votes for farm minister Michihiko Kano and 24 votes for former infrastructure and transport minister Sumio Mabuchi.
As Mr. Noda faces the opposition-controlled Upper House, strengthening DPJ unity will be key to the realization of a stable government. Without it, he will be unable to increase the party's negotiating power against the opposition forces, especially the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito.
The fact that he eventually defeated Mr. Kaieda shows that quite a few DPJ lawmakers do not like the possibility of Mr. Ozawa's influence increasing within the party. But Mr. Noda should not repeat the mistake that Mr. Kan committed.
At a time when he needed to strengthen the DPJ's position vis-a-vis the LDP and Komeito, Mr. Kan destroyed unity in the DPJ and weakened it from inside, by opting to isolate within the party Mr. Ozawa, who had led the DPJ to victory in the 2007 Upper House election and, again, in the 2009 Lower House election that brought the party to power.
Mr. Kan aimed to increase the approval rating of his Cabinet by alienating Mr. Ozawa, who is involved in a bookkeeping scandal of his fund management body but is not accused of corruption. This approach ended up costing him, as shown by the DPJ's failure under the leadership of Mr. Kan and party secretary general Katsuya Okada to develop a constructive relationship with the LDP and Komeito for smooth passage of important bills through the Diet. Mr. Noda's ability to establish party unity will be soon tested.
Mr. Noda also should not repeat Mr. Kan's mistake of blindly following Finance Ministry officials' opinions.
In the 2010 Upper House election, he called for raising the consumption tax without fully digesting the issue. His flip-flop on the issue contributed to the DPJ's defeat in the election. Mr. Noda appears to be enthusiastic about increasing taxes to raise funds for postdisaster reconstruction and to restore health to state finances.
Tax hikes could lead to the contraction of spending by consumers and companies. This would undermine economic recovery and shrink the tax base, thus reducing total tax revenues and further delaying financial reconstruction.
Mr. Noda should seriously think about this possibility. He must ask whether it is a sane policy to raise taxes when the nation is suffering from deflation and lack of demand.
Mr. Noda has been calling for the formation of a grand coalition with the DPJ, the LDP and Komeito. It would mean suppression of minority opinions within the Diet. Under such a coalition, the DPJ would be forced to give up on almost all the important points of its election manifesto, which was the driving force in its coming to power in the 2009 Lower House election. Instead, the DPJ should try to form a cooperative relationship with the opposition parties, issue by issue.
To realize an important part of the DPJ manifesto, Mr. Noda should make serious efforts to establish a National Strategy Bureau for developing grand national policies and for legally empowering the Cabinet to control the personnel affairs of high-ranking bureaucrats and to eradicate the wasteful use of public money used to sweeten the pockets of bureaucrats.
Mr. Noda thinks that Class-A war criminals, including wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, should not be regarded as war criminals. This view ignores the consequences of actions that they were responsible for, and it is not likely to be acceptable either to neighboring countries or to the United States. It will weaken Japan's position in the international community.
Mr. Noda also should clearly declare a policy of phasing out nuclear power, and vigorously promote renewable energy and push decontamination of areas where radioactive materials have been detected.