Japan: A New Hope
Without doubt, one of the reasons why Japan has been in such an economic funk for much of the past 20 years is its lack of strong leadership. Yoshihiko Noda is Japan’s 14th prime minister in the past two decades, and the sixth in five years. No other country has such a frequent turnover of heads of government. Hopes that the Democratic Party of Japan’s landmark election victory in 2009 would transform politics have proved wildly over-optimistic.
Now, however, there is a new hope of sorts. Osaka’s maverick mayor, Toru Hashimoto, is launching a new political movement, including a political training school, which he hopes can radically transform the way Japan is governed. Three of his proposals are very bold to say the least:
Popular election of Prime Minister: At present, Japan’s PM is chosen by the Diet, as is the case in most parliamentary democracies. By making the premier directly elected, the incumbent should a) have greater public support, and b) a minimum fixed-term, meaning that he or she would not have to step down at the first sign of trouble – a fate that usually befalls Japanese leaders. A popular vote for the prime minister could also pave the way for independent or ‘outsider’ candidates less beholden to party or vested interests to rise to high office. Japan’s prefectures already have direct elections for governors, and governors tend to serve many years in office, in stark contrast to the prime minister. Critics fear, however, that this more ‘presidential’ system would allow celebrities to run for office, potentially trivialising politics.
Abolition of the Upper House: One of the reasons why Japan has experienced so much political paralysis (since mid-2007 in particular) is because its two legislative houses have been dominated by opposing forces. In the July 2007 Upper House elections, the then-ruling Liberal Democratic Party lost control of that chamber to the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). The DPJ went on to win a huge majority in the more powerful Lower House in the August 2009 general elections, but then lost ground in the July 2010 Upper House vote. The resulting deadlock tends to delay the passage of legislation. Abolishing the second chamber could speed things up, in theory, but it would remove checks and balance considered important in democracies.
Creating super regions: Hashimoto has also spoken of reorganising Japan’s 47 prefectures into eight or nine regional governments that would have considerable autonomy from Tokyo. This would certainly be a dramatic change, for it would allow greater economic competition between the regions, and allow different regional states to experiment with their own policies, without the interference of the central government.
To many in the ruling DPJ and opposition LDP, these proposals are non-starters. At the very least, they would require a change of the constitution, which would in turn need two-thirds support in both houses of the Diet and public approval in a referendum. Yet, it is hard to see the Upper House voting to dissolve itself out of existence. Nevertheless, Hashimoto’s Osaka-based Ishin no Kai party hopes to field 300 candidates and capture 200 seats in the Lower House in the next general election, which must be held by August 2013. This is a tall order, and it is quite possible that his current popularity will have faded by that time. Nonetheless, if Hashimoto and his allies can make headway at the national level, Japan could be due a bigger political shake-up, which could eventually pave the way for real change.
We are watching Hashimoto’s political moves closely, and will be analysing their implications in more detail in Business Monitor Online.