Sunday, 19 April 2009

Easing out Ichiro

Once again, having governed Japan all but continuously for half a century, the ruling Liberal Democrat Party might just have rescued themselves from what seemed only a month ago to be certain defeat in elections due this year. As mentioned yesterday, polls now show them ahead of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan - quite a turn around on the embattled government of Prime Minister Taro Aso's recent fortunes. The most popular outcome of the election, according to Jiji Press's poll - and perhaps the most likely given the tightness of the race - would be a 'grand coalition' of the two parties to steer Japan through the economic storm it currently finds itself embroiled in. While this is unlikely to be strictly necessary - one or other of the parties is almost certain to be in a position to form a government without the other following the election - a narrow victory for either one may see them choose to join forces to overcome a deficit of legitimacy that only a resounding win could deliver, while absolving them of responsibility for taking tough economic decisions alone.

Yet in terms of Japan's political development, this would be a terrible outcome. For too long Japan has been governed through backroom deals between the various factions of the LDP. Just as its political system seemed to maturing with the emergence of a viable alternative political force, it would be a gross disenfranchisement of the Japanese electorate if the two parties were to stitch together a government regardless of the people's choice. So far, the DPJ has been an uninspiring government-in-waiting, with an ill-articulated platform to oppose the LDP. In many ways, indeed, it is an LDP-clone - a series of factions cobbled together out of convenience in the pursuit of patronage and power.

What is needed is new leadership - and as a first step the DPJ's current leader, Ichiro Ozawa, has to go. It is his own plummeting popularity, linked to a corruption case launched by prosecuters against him, that is pulling the rest of his party down with him. The danger is, that without the seasoned veteran at the helm - Mr Ozawa was once a LDP-heavyweight before defecting to the opposition in the 1990s - the DPJ would simply unravel. But for the health of Japanese politics, this is a risk worth taking. Politically paralysed by the investigation about him, he is currently mulling his future. He should step down. Under a new leader and a coherent set of ideas, the DPJ might still provide Japan with the choice it so desperately needs.

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