The shape of the Ozawa revolution

Now is the time to change Japan. It is not exaggeration to say that this is the last chance to change.”

So said Ozawa Ichiro Sunday as he marked his uncontested election to a third term as president of the DPJ.

Mr. Ozawa gave an extended policy address to mark the occasion and to steel his party and its opposition partners for the forthcoming general election campaign. Mr. Ozawa’s address will steal some thunder from Aso Taro’s imminent coronation as LDP president, but its value is bigger than a ploy to draw media attention to the LDP. Mr. Ozawa tried to give some substance to the revolution that could result from “regime change,” echoing the belligerent rhetoric of Koizumi Junichiro — Mr. Ozawa spoke of the coming election as the “last battle” — to advance his position in the fight to reimagine the Japanese state and its relationship with society.

Renewing his party’s pledge to put the people’s livelihood first, he offered a nine-point program for an Ozawa government, largely a recapitulation of the party’s 2007 manifesto: (1) restoring health and pensions systems; (2) instituting policies to encourage childrearing, starting with child allowances; (3) reducing the number of “working poor” and ensuring work for those who want to work; (4) revitalizing regions by revitalizing agriculture and small- and medium-sized businesses; (5) lifting the burden of high prices; (6) eliminating “special account budgets” to return money from the bureaucrats to the people; (7) implementing “true” regional decentralization; (8) opening politics to the people; and (9) working to preserve the environment and international peace.

These proposals are not new — and certainly not unique to the DPJ — and will undoubtedly attract questions about how the DPJ will implement these policies (and how it will pay for them).

To answer that question, Mr. Ozawa offered what may amount to a wholesale reinvention of how the government formulates its budgets. To reorient government to serve the interests of an insecure public and to implement the nine-point program, he called for a “general rearrangement” of the budget, most notably by dissolving the special account budgets that finance semi-public corporations and considerable infrastructure work, among other projects that tend to receive less scrutiny than the general budget. The goal seems to be a reconstruction of the Japanese budget from scratch, a far more revolutionary idea than Nakagawa Hidenao’s crusade against government waste. Whether the DPJ will be able to accomplish such an ambitious goal is an open question, but this discussion is only possible under a DPJ government, less attached to the existing arrangement between the LDP and the bureaucracy. Connected with this is a promise by Mr. Ozawa regarding the timing of the DPJ’s program, declaring that proposals will be passed into law either next year, within the next two years, or within the next four years.

Not surprisingly, Yomiuri is skeptical of Mr. Ozawa’s agenda and asks what of Japan’s participation in “the war on terror,” but Yomiuri seems to have little idea of the coalition Mr. Ozawa is assembling under the DPJ’s banner. Sounding not unlike candidates from the US Democratic Party, Mr. Ozawa spoke of his travels from north to south, his conversations with those who have suffered under LDP-Komeito rule, especially its market fundamentalism and survival-of-the-fittest politics, and grounded his appeal in the sufferings of the Japanese people. He questioned the LDP’s attentiveness to the public’s insecurities, drawing a contrast between the LDP’s casual replacement of prime ministers and enduring economic hardships.

“Although one can reset in video games, one cannot reset in real-life politics and in the lives of the people. Although the LDP president can abandon an administration, the people cannot abandon their lives. People who cannot understand even this self-evident matter do not have the qualities to wield power.”

The idea is less that the LDP is the deliberate enemy of the Japanese people than that the LDP is unserious about the people’s woes, more concerned with sloganeering and posturing than with fixing Japan’s problems.

Contrary to the arguments of the Japanese establishment, a DPJ victory will not depend on the strength and specificity of its policy program, just as an LDP victory will not depend on its policy specifics. Much like in the United States, electoral victory will depend on who can best embody a break with the (recent) past. To win, Mr. Aso will have to run against his predecessors, inconvenient for him considering his service in the Koizumi and Abe governments. Seeing as how the Japanese economy has only worsened since the LDP lost the 2007 upper house election, it is all too easy for Mr. Ozawa to make the case once again that the LDP is indifferent to the people’s concerns, to ask the public to set aside their doubts about Mr. Ozawa and to turn their attention to the government in Tokyo that has neglected them.

Will it work again? Will enough voters see the LDP as bankrupt — even with Mr. Aso at its helm — and turn to the DPJ as the best hope for change in Japanese politics? It just might. The combination of a worsening economy, a broken LDP, faltering social services, and Mr. Ozawa’s ramblings across Japan may be enough to break the LDP’s hold on power. (Here’s an intriguing idea: if the general election is held after the US presidential election, will a victory by Barack Obama raise the probability of a DPJ victory by reminding Japanese voters of the possibility of change through the ballot box?)

A DPJ victory will undoubtedly be cathartic, a dramatic break with five decades of LDP rule. But catharsis alone does not make a revolution. It may be that the DPJ comes to find beating the LDP easier than governing in its stead. Japan’s problems will not be fixed in one, two, or four years. The broken budget remains the first priority for any Japanese government. But as Mr. Ozawa argues, this is an important turning point, Japan’s best chance to chart a new course. The DPJ, for all its flaws, is Japan’s best chance to right itself.

One thought on “The shape of the Ozawa revolution

  1. 5 decades ? What about Hosokawa, Hata and Murayama ?That is the risk for the DPJ if it wins now. Getting the power at the most difficult time economically, not being able to make a difference, and allowing the LDP to reign again after a short parenthesis.

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