Prime Minister Naoto Kan officially announced his resignation on Aug. 26, saying, "I've done what I've had to do."
During the two years since the historic regime change, two prime ministers quickly got bogged down in a political quagmire and stepped down. This is undeniably a disastrous failure of politics under the rule of the Democratic Party of Japan.
What are the root causes of the dreadful political situation?
It is not that Kan pushed policy in the wrong direction.
Kan deserves credit for responding to the Fukushima nuclear disaster by trying to lead the nation toward a future less dependent on atomic energy.
We also applaud him for tackling the tough political challenge of developing plans for the unpopular but important proposal of integrated tax and social security reform involving a consumption tax hike.
But executing a policy requires building consensus. Kan was unskilled at consensus building, and he sometimes didn't even make efforts to win support for his proposals from his Cabinet members.
As he simply proposed policies without laying the necessary political groundwork, he was inevitably criticized for practicing off-the-cuff politics.
But let us hazard a question. Would the Kan administration have lasted much longer if he had been a leader with a broader perspective and a greater ability to build consensus?
The DPJ is in such disarray that it is hard to answer the question in the affirmative.
Kan was constantly hobbled not merely by the opposition control of the Upper House but equally by perennial political wrangling within the ruling party.
Kan's efforts to push through such key policy initiatives as a consumption tax hike and a review of the party's election manifesto were met with opposition from party members, especially a group of lawmakers led by former DPJ chief Ichiro Ozawa. With the party unable to reach agreement on these and other key policy issues, the Kan administration lost political momentum.
The confrontation within the party came to a head in June, when the Ozawa group threatened to support an opposition-sponsored no-confidence motion against the Cabinet.
As he avoided a final Diet floor showdown with his opponents within the party, Kan set the stage for his departure.
As the top item in the memorandum he exchanged with his predecessor, Yukio Hatoyama, during their talks for avoiding passage of the no-confidence motion against him, Kan promised not to "destroy the DPJ." This fact symbolized the grim reality and limitations of the party.
The DPJ was formed as a rugged collection of politicians pursuing sharply different political agendas and approaches. It was a political alliance among a wide range of lawmakers who didn't belong to the Liberal Democratic Party, which ruled the nation for decades. Its principal mission was to secure electoral victories in single-seat constituencies of the Lower House.
In a nutshell, the DPJ was a mutual electoral support group born out of the single-seat election system.
When it was in the opposition, the party managed to put up a united front under the banner of regime change.
As soon as it achieved this political goal, however, the party found itself without a shared vision and plunged into an endless cycle of infighting. The DPJ's track record since it came to power suggests that the group is too politically immature to be called a political party.
If the party remains as it is, the next administration is sure to repeat the same failure.
The challenge facing the DPJ is whether it can outgrow its old self as an electoral mutual support group and morph into a full-fledged political party.
The party leadership election officially announced on Aug. 27 is of critical importance for the political viability of the DPJ.
During the prelude to the election, many prospective candidates talked about unity and reconciliation among party members.
Such talk may find a certain resonance among party members who are eager to see an end to the intraparty struggle that continued even after the Great East Japan Earthquake in March.
If, however, "party unity" here means turning a blind eye to differences over policies among members, such slogans only represent an extremely irresponsible answer to the party's problems.
If the candidates try to win the leadership race by offering the powerful Ozawa group key posts that control the party's election funds and the right to nominate official party candidates for national elections, the party will inevitably lose the support of even more voters.
It is clear what the party should do in the leadership race. It should redefine its political position.
First, all the candidates should make clear their stances toward the party's manifesto for the Lower House election that led to its ascent to power. Would they revise or stick to the platform?
Candidates who vow to adhere to the manifesto should say how they would raise the money needed to deliver on the election promises. The DPJ's plan to raise funds through spending cuts has become synonymous with wishful thinking in the past two years.
Secondly, after the leadership election, all party members should come together to support the policies proposed by the winner and contribute to the new leader's efforts to push through his proposals. The quality of the manifesto should be improved in line with the new policy agenda. DPJ lawmakers who cannot agree to the new chief's policy agenda should leave the party.
Like the DPJ, the LDP also comprises politicians with widely different political stripes. There is enough room for political realignment around key policy issues.
Such a development would give voters a fresh opportunity to choose a new government on the basis of policies instead of a simple choice between the LDP and the DPJ.
The worst thing that could happen to the party is a leadership contest without serious policy debate in which the candidates only propose vague policies in order to win as many votes as possible.
Even if the party can choose its new leader without meaningful debate, such a race would plant seeds of future confrontation that hamper progress in politics.
Political styles and ways to run the government should also be among major topics for the party leadership election.
We believe that politics of partisan confrontation driven by the power of numbers should come to an end.
When it was led by Ozawa, the DPJ exploited its power as the largest voting bloc in the Upper House to keep making things tough for the government of the LDP-New Komeito coalition.
The DPJ used its political muscle effectively to drive the LDP-led government into a corner through such maneuvers as rejecting the government's nominees for the new Bank of Japan governor and thereby keeping the post of the central bank chief vacant for a while. The DPJ's strategy worked well to pressure the government into an early dissolution of the Lower House for an election to choose the government.
The DPJ came to power as a result, but the party has been suffering from political reprisals by the LDP.
During this period, Ozawa boasted that he would be able to raise any amount of money to finance the party's policy proposals and had the party increase the monthly child-care allowance it promised to 26,000 yen per child.
At the heart of such an approach to politics is a single-minded pursuit of power.
Japan should outgrow such old-fashioned politics and move toward a new era of politics in which the ruling and opposition parties try to find common ground through serious and constructive policy debate.
The principal lesson to be gleaned from the bitter experiences in the past two years is that this is the only way to break the political stalemate in this age of a divided Diet.
The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 27
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