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Saturday, Sept. 4, 2010

DPJ, like voters, too flighty: Kabashima

Governor urges stability, resolve, steady helm


Staff writer

Kumamoto Gov. Ikuo Kabashima feels what is lacking in politics is patience, both by the Democratic Party of Japan and voters.

News photo
Lead by example: Kumamoto Gov. Ikuo Kabashima speaks in the prefecture's Tokyo office last month. SATOKO KAWASAKI PHOTO

"I've only served for 2 1/2 years as governor, but during this period we have already had four prime ministers. In such a short period, how can one prime minister achieve anything?" said Kabashima, who was a highly respected professor of political science at the University of Tokyo before becoming governor in April 2008.

"The DPJ should be more patient and support the same leader for a longer time," he said in a recent interview. "To implement its manifesto, the party should even include a pledge that it will not change its leader for four years. It's important to bring in such stability."

Kabashima won the governor's race with support from the Liberal Democratic Party, but he ran as an independent.

The campaign for the DPJ's presidential poll officially kicked off Wednesday with party powerhouse Ichiro Ozawa looking to unseat Naoto Kan. If Ozawa wins, Kan — who just became the top dog in June — will also be replaced as prime minister.

Ozawa's move to challenge Kan triggered concerns both in and outside the DPJ that the division between the two leaders may prove damaging to the party and perhaps even split it asunder.

Now that the conflict is unavoidable, the Kumamoto governor wants to see three developments.

"First, after overcoming this conflict, I hope the new leader will push the party in the direction of solidarity. Second, I hope the new leader will work to rebuild the people's trust in politics that has been broken by money scandals," Kabashima said, noting many voters feel politicians are working only for themselves.

Referring to the DPJ's "politics of high expectations and disappointment," Kabashima said the ruling party has repeatedly raised people's hopes by announcing lofty goals, only to quickly disappoint by not achieving anything.

Third, "the new prime minister should get out of this vicious cycle of building up high expectations and then letting the voters down," he said.

Kabashima, 63, who in his previous career specialized in analyzing politics through various data, said Japan's tragedy is a fickle electorate and the lack of a stable two-party system. Voters swiftly switch from one party to another and the parties overreact to public opinion, he said.

Along with another political scientist, Gill Steel, the Kumamoto governor recently authored the book "Changing Politics in Japan" published by Cornell University Press.

The book examines Japan's postwar political history, especially how the LDP locked up support in rural areas and remained in power for so long, and the rise of the DPJ.

The Kumamoto native said the DPJ committed several errors in governing in the past year. One was going in with the intention of alienating the bureaucrats in Kasumigaseki.

"It is unfortunate that the trust between politicians and bureaucrats is gone. One of the merits of being the ruling party is having bureaucrats on its side, but the DPJ is not fully utilizing their ability."

Kabashima also had to face a bureaucracy on his home turf soon after he took office.

He spearheaded cost-cutting efforts by paring the salaries of 23,000 prefectural officials, but before he took that step he slashed his own monthly salary of ¥1.24 million by ¥1 million for his first year in office.

"After taxes, I only received ¥140,000 a month," he said.

But his sacrifice appears to have paid off. He believes that because of his own pay cut, union members in the prefectural government accepted the wage reductions and also understood the gravity of the prefecture's ¥1.3 trillion debt at the time.

In his second year, accounting illegalities were discovered in the prefectural government. Fearing it was just the tip of the iceberg, he told officials to report any illegal accounting practices and promised they wouldn't be punished. As a result, illegalities worth about ¥100 million were uncovered. He also cut 50 percent of his salary, which by then was back to normal, to take responsibility.

After these incidents, he was able to gain support from the local bureaucracy, he said. "Without the support of bureaucrats, politicians can't do a good job."

Another DPJ failure cited by Kabashima was that many pledges written into the party's platform, including the child allowance, can't be achieved without proper financial resources.

"Voters don't necessarily feel that the party needs to implement everything that was in the manifesto. There will always be a gap between what we face now and what we thought in the past," he said, adding it is sometimes necessary to try adjusting that gap.

Kabashima first emerged as a strong leader in September 2009 when he told the central government to cancel its plan — in the works for more than 40 years — to build a dam on the Kawabe River and instead find a more environmentally responsible flood-control measure for the area.

It was a bold decision, as the then ruling LDP, which supported the dam project, held more than 70 percent of the seats at the Kumamoto Prefectural Assembly.

"If I had run on the LDP ticket, I couldn't oppose the LDP position on the dam project," he said.

Soon after that, a local newspaper reported a survey showing 85 percent of the public supported the governor's decision. That changed the political current, he said.

"Before carrying out a huge task, politicians need to establish the people's trust," he said.



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