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Friday, Sep. 16, 2011

New prime minister must restore confidence in politics


Yoshihiko Noda, taking over from Naoto Kan as president of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, was elected the 95th prime minister on Aug. 30. He is the 18th prime minister in 25 years and the third since the DPJ came to power two years ago.

With prime ministers changing so fast in recent years, it is no wonder that the nation has failed to come out with any long-range policy for economic structural reforms and any stable strategy concerning foreign affairs and that the Kan Cabinet's support rate dipped to a level between 10 percent and 20 percent in its latest period in office.

With the DPJ as well as other parties losing their capabilities as political parties, people's confidence in politics has waned and nonpartisan people have almost become a majority. Naturally, the question arises as to whether the new Cabinet will be able to help restore the public's trust in politics and pave the way for building a "New Japan" to live up to people's expectations in the wake of the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake.

Now, what the new national leader has to do first of all is to step up efforts to recover the nation's political governance to a healthy state. The DPJ, about 15 years since its present party structure was established, still remains a motley collection of groups and has no party platform or powerful unifying power. In its party chief's election on Aug. 29, Noda won a runoff victory after fierce intraparty factional maneuvering. Consequently, he is under the pressure to demonstrate his leadership for achieving party unity and consensus while eliminating politics of grudges.

Meanwhile, the Diet is still divided with the DPJ dominating the Lower House but with the opposition forces controlling the Upper House. Sentiments of mutual distrust persist between the ruling and opposition parties and, as seen in the twists and turns that led to Kan's resignation, the management of Diet business is likely to face a rough sailing.

So, the government party should make serious efforts to restore the basis for productive policy discussions with opposition parties and find ways to reach agreement on important policy issues.

Therefore, the new government leader is required to demonstrate ample quality as a leader, open-mindedness and reliable personality in order to tide over this severe political situation.

To do so, he should have a clear vision for the future of the nation and strong skills for concept-building and persuasion. Primarily, the prime minister is a lonely leader. And there is a limit to what he can do as an individual. So, he should have adequate broad-mindedness to help create a favorable environment for promoting a "team" power in conducting political and administrative activities.

Secondly, the nation's methods for working out policies and making decisions need to be improved greatly. Currently, the country is faced with a lot of important policy issues such as reconstruction from the disasters, departure from deflation, correction of the yen's appreciation, growth strategy, financial rehabilitation, integrated tax and social insurance reforms, energy security, restoration of public confidence in nuclear energy, halting of a declining population, Japan's projected participation in the Trans Pacific Partnership free trade agreements covering Japan, China and South Korea and the problems of U.S. military bases in Okinawa.

The past DPJ administrations have drawn up and practiced policies in a spur-of-the-moment manner. Primarily a process of choosing policy tools should be accompanied by sufficient and many-sided assessment and review of such tools. The assessment standards concern necessity, efficacy and possible adverse side effects of policies and low administrative costs for implementing them.

The DPJ government has made little of adverse side effects feared to arise from the implementation of some policy measures. For example, making expressways toll-free will increase the nation's financial burdens and aggravate global warming.

If nuclear energy is abolished, the energy costs will rise and accelerate global warming. If the policy of handing out the child allowance and other lavish budgetary outlays is continued any longer, the state financial structure will deteriorate and may plant the easygoing moral trend of passing around financial costs among people.

What is important for today's Japan is to select holistically optimum policies giving due consideration to the relevant time scales. Typical examples are policies for business recovery and financial rehabilitation.

Correct information and rich concept-building capabilities are indispensable for choosing holistically optimum policy measures. For this process it is necessary to activate the administrative system, to make full use of its functions and to promote the public sector's exchanges and coordination with the private sector.

The Kan administration tended to set up task teams within the prime minister's headquarters and make decisions internally. But such a decision-making process make it difficult to obtain any holistically optimum judgment. It is rather advisable to fully promote information disclosure for the purpose of encouraging active policy discussions among the government, the mass media, think tanks, private enterprises and nonprofit organizations and to select excellent proposals resulting from such discussions. If such an environment is created, people's political awareness will be highly raised.

Third, the DPJ way of making policy decisions with politicians taking the lead should be changed so as to attain proper workings. Past history teaches that a society in which politicians decide everything does stagnate. Primarily it is individuals, enterprises and nonprofit organizations, but not politicians, which should bloom and bear fruit in society.

Politicians' role is to help this happen by improving the soil of society and preparing apt conditions. They should set up fundamental conditions for various achievements. If state ministers, senior vice ministers and ministerial state secretaries go as far as to meddle in specific administrative steps, this constitutes a mistaken use of politicians' initiatives.

Former Prime Minister Kan showed his tendency of doing unnecessary intervention in the administrative system and corporate activities as well as in social management. But governmental intervention should be done only when problems cannot be solved by market functions alone and, in such an occasion, should be conducted in a fair and transparent manner. The principle of politicians' initiatives in making policy decisions should be put to actions in a proper manner.

My point is that if the new prime minister handles policies by bringing together essential information and proposals domestically as well as from abroad and makes his decisions in a humble and very cautious manner, it will prove to be the sure way to help restore people's trust in politics.

Shinji Fukukawa, formerly vice minister of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (now the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry) and president of Dentsu Research Institute, is currently chairman of the Machine Industry Memorial Foundation.


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