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Monday, May 3, 1999

Kan's policy quest undeterred despite party's slump


Staff writer

Democratic Party of Japan leader Naoto Kan is secretly called the "destroyer" among the nation's business circles for his revisionist views and advocacy toward an overhaul of the nation's political and administrative systems.

"If the DPJ becomes the ruling power, it will change the (policymaking) landscape of this country and overhaul the administrative system rooted in the bureaucratic center of (the Tokyo district of) Kasumigaseki and resuscitate the whole system," Kan said in a recent interview with The Japan Times.

But despite his nickname, the head of the nation's largest opposition party has not achieved much yet.

On April 27, the DPJ celebrated its one-year anniversary. Thanks to its stunning advance in last summer's Upper House election, the DPJ, which has 131 Diet members at its launch in 1998, now has 144 legislators.

But ironically, Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi's Liberal Democratic Party-led government -- which Kan yearns to topple -- has been enjoying a steady rise in its approval rate, now at around 30 percent, up from about 24 percent, the lowest of any prime minister since 1993.

In contrast, the DPJ's popularity rate in opinion surveys has declined sharply from nearly 20 percent last summer to levels hovering around 5 percent to 8 percent. Some observers note that while there are doubts about whether Kan has the mettle and leadership to head the main opposition force, no one else in the party seems qualified.

Established with the merger of various parties, the DPJ consists of rank-and-file lawmakers from a variety of backgrounds, including former LDP politicians and Social Democrats.

Some analysts believe the diverse political backgrounds of DPJ legislators have prevented it from mapping out a clear policy platform and thus blur its distinctions from other parties.

"The DPJ failed to present a clear image to the public of what kind of changes a DPJ-led government could bring about," Kan concedes. "The party needs to decide and announce a concrete policy. A pledge like opening up the floodgates of Isahaya Bay (in Nagasaki Prefecture) within half a year may be necessary."

The controversial government bay fill project was launched in 1997 and criticized by some to be a waste of public works funding. The Isahaya project dried up the bay's tidal flat, which was known the world over for its ecological diversity.

To prepare to decentralize and overhaul the current government administrative system, Kan's group plans to submit bills to the Diet by the end of the ongoing session in mid-June. The bills will focus on two points -- limiting the power and budget of the central government and creating a system where municipal governments can exercise more autonomous power.

The 52-year-old party leader also said the DPJ partly welcomes government-proposed bills to reorganize ministries and agencies that were submitted to the Diet last week, but added that it plans to call for revisions to them.

"While some of the reforms stipulated in the bills will make a better government, some will worsen even the current situation," he said, referring to the government's proposal to create a powerful and gigantic National Land and Transport Ministry.

One single ministry should not be given the power to control a huge budget for all public works projects, he said.

But most of all, Kan wants to transform the process of compiling the central government budget from the current bottom-to-top system to a top-to-bottom system.

Under the annual budget-drafting process, each ministry compiles outlay requests from each of its sections and bureaus and makes budget requests to the Finance Ministry in August. After that, the Finance Ministry screens those requests in time for December's compilation of the state budget for the following fiscal year.

The DPJ leader contends that this process provides no room for the prime minister or any of the Cabinet ministers to intervene, save giving rubber-stamp approval to the completed budget.

Kan insists the system is completely controlled by bureaucrats and a handful of LDP "zoku-giin," literally tribal lawmakers, who are closely attached to certain businesses or groups and speak for their interests.

"Like the British system, we should first have the Cabinet decide on the total size of the budget and each ministry's budget, and then let the ministries allocate funds to its bureaus," he said.

Despite his eagerness to dislodge Obuchi from office and overhaul the system, Kan's party itself appears to be at risk of falling apart due to internal ideological differences.

Recent debate over bills covering the updated Japan-U.S. defense cooperation guidelines highlighted the sharp differences DPJ politicians have over security policy.

Opinions of party executives regarding the bills and how to deal with them were split. While left-leaning DPJ politicians like Takahiro Yokomichi vehemently opposed them, some lawmakers formerly with the LDP pressed the party to approve them.

"It's true that we have a wide range of opinions over security issues. ... But we will have to decide the party's basic security policy and we will do so as early as May," Kan said.

He explained that the DPJ regards the Japan-U.S. security alliance as indispensable for Japan, and that it understands the importance of the guidelines-related bills.

DPJ-proposed amendments were not fully reflected in the bills that cleared the Lower House last week with the support of the LDP, its coalition partner, the Liberal Party, and the second-largest opposition party, New Komeito. But the DPJ will continue to make efforts to revise the bills during Upper House debate, he said.

Slamming the Obuchi Cabinet's recent smooth sailing, Kan said the administration only cares about clinging to power for as long as possible, and indicated his party may submit a no-confidence motion to the Diet against the administration.

"Over time, it will become apparent that the economic recovery and economic structural reforms Prime Minister Obuchi has pledged to the public will not be achievable," he said. "Against this backdrop, we will try to take action against the government in the latter half of the current Diet session."

Gearing up for the next general election, to come before October 2000, when the current term of Lower House members expires, Kan said his party will field candidates in nearly 80 percent of all 300 single seat constituencies, and the DPJ will draw up a list of candidates by the end of the month.

To ensure victory in the next election, the DPJ had been seeking to cooperate with New Komeito. But the recent de-facto alliance forged between the ruling bloc and New Komeito over the guidelines-related bills may be forcing the DPJ to reconsider such cooperation.

"We will not only seek tieups with New Komeito (for the election), but also urge other political forces, such as Kaikaku Club, the Social Democratic Party, Sakigake and independent politicians to join hands with us and establish a cooperative scheme in the next election," Kan said.



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