Mandate for change

Published : Sep 25, 2009 00:00 IST

in Singapore

THE latest transfer of power in Japan has been long in coming. But a high degree of transcendental politics is at work, and the true nature of the change is yet to be discerned. For now, the architect of this change, 62-year-old Yukio Hatoyama, has portrayed it as the unmistakable sign of a collective yearning for responsive rule. In his view, this yearning, largely profound for years, has now turned into a groundswell that has completely swept a long-governing establishment off its feet.

It is not as if Japan is witnessing a revolutionary shift from colonialism to independence or even a change of the seat of sovereignty. Nor is there a conspicuous sign of ideological transformation such as a shift from self-centred capitalism to pristine socialism. Yet, the mystique of change cannot be missed. As this report is written, the mystique is yet to be fully understood by the players and pundits alike. On August 30, an electorate of the order of 100 million decisively voted out the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which had presided over the destiny of the country since 1955, when it came on the scene, except for a short span of less than a year in the early 1990s.

The LDP was handed a big mandate in 2005 when Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi rode the wave of his charm offensive. As a leader with a huge following, an unusual asset in Japanese politics, he managed to convince the voters of his smart-power capabilities. His trademark project was privatisation of the postal system, perceived to be the most inefficient public utility at the time. This aspect of the 2005 elections might now serve as a backdrop for assessing the emerging politics and policies of Hatoyama.

Before and during the campaign, some equated Hatoyamas skills as a leader with Koizumis knack of winning friends and influencing people. The landslide victory of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) has shown Hatoyama to be a political communicator in his own right. If many pundits missed this in the first place, the reason could be his failure to have made a similar impact in the early 1990s when he quit the LDP to chart an independent course. His grandfather Ichiro Hatoyama, who founded the LDP, was a person of high standing. Not only that. Dynastic politics was a near-defining feature of LDP rule, either on the partys own steam or in coalition politics. To this extent, Hatoyama has taken a long time to come out of the shadow of the LDP.

Hatoyamas maturing as a politician with a fine sense of timing has taken time. In the early 1990s, when he and Ichiro Ozawa parted ways with the LDP, the partys monopolistic hold on power did begin to show signs of brittleness. And a general change of sorts did occur in Japanese politics during that period. However, at that time Hatoyamas leadership potential was not recognised fully. The LDPs collective control of the political space and Koizumis meteoric rise at the turn of the 21st century did slow down Hatoyamas rise to prominence. In the event, this may have actually suited him.

Koizumis voluntary retirement in 2006 was followed by a procession of LDP Prime Ministers. Shinzo Abe, Yasuo Fukuda and Taro Aso, who led the LDP in the latest poll, had to bow out, with popularity ratings that may relegate them to the footnotes of history.

The prime ministerial procession was also punctuated by policy flip-flops. These related to such issues as bilateral ties with the United States, Japans long-time military patron and ally, and, more recently, the global economic crisis, which battered Japans highly networked economy. The creation of a leadership vacuum, as Hatoyama was quick to perceive, suited his campaign theme of change.

On the night of his victory, he thanked the electorate for responding positively to his call for change. As he saw it, the people opted for a three-dimensional change. Besides being a clear mandate for change, the verdict reflected two other choices. One of these, according to Hatoyama, is a vote for changing the substance of the sovereignty of the people.

Viewed in this light, he now needs to give the people a meaningful say in public administration. The related reasoning is that the LDP did not do so because of its intrinsic character as a conglomerate of big business, grand bureaucracy and self-centred rural lobbies.

The other popular clamour for change, in his view, is actually an expectation of a smooth transition from the discredited LDP-led establishment to a new order. This new order, although not labelled by him in this fashion so far, will represent a fusion of the old and the new. In saying this, he obviously sees himself as the link between the old and the new and as the one best suited to engineer a new system of responsive governance.

The actual governance agenda is now wide open, given that the voters have now willingly brought upon themselves a political tsunami. In this colourful imagery that some experts have evoked, a new Japan can be built upon the ruins of the LDP-led establishment. In line with this ambitious vision, Hatoyama tends to believe that his country can be reinvented, as it were, as a caring society at peace with its neighbours and with peace and prosperity at home.

The DPJ has not had a long presence in Japanese politics. Being a forum of some vintage LDP leaders and others with either socialist or genuinely liberal orientations, the DPJ is still a political house in the making. It has also evolved, at least so far, as a clearing house for political theories of the state best suited to the interests of the Japanese people. The DPJ faced the electorate in the company of smaller allies.

Hatoyama now faces the parallel tasks of building his party and repairing Japan to make it a new polity. To this end, he will first turn to the partys manifesto on responses to such challenges as the raising of families in an ageing society, the care of the elderly, education and employment.

In a vital sense, the defence of Japan, given the historical constraints imposed on it by the U.S. at the end of the Second World War, is itself a foreign policy issue. Tokyo has been close to Washington since the time of Shigeru Yoshida in the formative period of post-imperial Japan after the War. The degree of closeness has sometimes been a matter of political nuance in either of the capitals. Also, the U.S.-Japan military alliance was updated on occasions.

Koizumi strengthened the alliance to meet the realities of the 21st century, even while providing for a reshaping of the American military and geostrategic footprint across Japan. It was he who extended Japans non-lethal military-logistic support for the execution of Americas War on Terror in Afghanistan and Iraq. Aso stayed that course, and critics say that he and Koizumi transformed Japan into a geostationary satellite of the U.S.

As a result, Hatoyama has now committed himself to renegotiating the Status of Forces Agreement that governs the U.S. military presence in Japan. He is disinclined to continue Japans gesture of extending non-lethal anti-terror support to the U.S. forces in the Indian Ocean region in the form of a refuelling mission. As he prepares to discuss these issues with U.S. President Barack Obama, who has projected himself as a new-wave leader who will not compromise on Americas core interests at home and abroad, Hatoyama will face a tough challenge.

In the emerging world view of the new Japanese leader, the U.S.-led global politics of the recent decades may indeed be winding down under its own contradictions. The current economic crisis is also seen to have taken the wind out of the sails of the U.S. in its role as the prime global leader. At the same time, Hatoyama is keen to place Japan in a stable and sustainable equation with China, a potential economic superpower with a possible political profile of matching proportions. With this in mind, he is even thinking of intra-Asian currency linkages, especially in Japans East Asian neighbourhood.

Should he seek to rewrite or reverse the fundamentals of Americas long-standing presence in East Asia as a resident power, regional diplomats expect sparks to fly in the talks. At stake then, in an extremely critical scenario, would be the U.S. nuclear umbrella, which has so far protected a pacifist Japan. For the U.S., its strategic bottom line in engaging Japan will be determined by who needs the other more and in what circumstances. Any such debate, should it come to that at all, will shine the spotlight on Hatoyamas view of Chinas foreseeable standing in Asia, relative to that of the U.S.

Even conservative experts such as Niall Ferguson are of the view that the balance of global power is bound to shift, away from the U.S. Asia is the most obvious venue for such a shift; and Hatoyama, who has visited India, is yet to spell out its place in his likely world view.

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