Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Democracy Japanese style

Usually I refrain from writing on topics where I feel knowledge gaps may give an inaccurate picture of a situation. Watching news about political scandals unfolding here is perplexing me to the extent that I am putting usual caution to the side.

As you no doubt know, last year the DPJ - Democratic Party of Japan - took power, removing the LDP - Liberal Democratic Party - from power for what was essentially the first change of government since the Americans left after WWII.

It has often been said that post war Japan is not a true democracy. One party remained in power, in a large part because complex financial arrangements meant pork barrel projects bought votes and loyalty. Sons inherited seats from their fathers resulting in fiefdomlike electorates. Gerrymander and electorate distortion up until 1994, when electorallaws were changed, apparently meant that the LDP could hold power with 20 percent of the vote. 1. Japan also lacks something akin to royal commissions and flagrant abuses by politicians seem to be common place, politicians being above the law.

The election last year was meant to be a break with the past. Putting decision making back to politicians, rather than with bureaucracies (that have in the past had questionable relationships with business), more independence from the US, better relations with Asian neighbors, cutting waste, in part by severing improper connections between government and business (esp. the construction industry), bringing in new politicians who are more in touch with average people (many politicians are 3rd or 4th generation).

In the first days of the new govt. many public works deemed to be of questionable value were cut, including construction of the Yamba dam in Gunma north east of Tokyo. Government agenencies were asked to account for all their spending. Change was on the way.
The past few weeks have been very disappointing for anyone who believed a change of govt. would lead to greater political accountability.

PM Hatoyama is embroiled in scandal after receiving large sums of suspiciously channelled money from his mother. With little doubt it was an attempt to evade gift tax / inheritence tax, which is Japan goes up to a whopping 70%. He has repaid 600 million yen (more than 7million AUD). Two of his aides have been charged but Hatoyama is denying any responsibility, blaming the aides for 'irregularities'.

The second in charge of the DPJ, the secratary general, Ichiro Ozawa (who wields so much power his is variously known as 'the king maker', 'the shadow shogun' and 'the puppet master' has also been at the centre of scandals with three of his aides arrested for corrupt land deals made on his behalf. Ozawa, a dogged and determined politician, seasoned in political battles is naturally defiant, caustically critising prosecutors for targetting him.

Beyond this it is hard to make sense of what is happening. A DPJ Diet Member, whose name I didn't catch, was interviewed the other day. Her reaction was that the unelected bureaucrats are being undemocratic in pursuing a criminal against a democratically elected politician. (Which effectively means laws don't apply to politicians.) There is a Japanese acadmic quoted in the NY Times today saying that the Ozawa scandal should be seen as bureucrats striking back to protect themselves from the challenge of elected leaders. The Prime Minister has publicly urged Ozawa to "fight" the prosecutors. As far as I can see, there is no discussion of legislative and judicial separation being basic tenents of democracy.

It seems quite simple. Either money used for land purchase was corruptly obtained, or it wasn't. Investigation should establish the facts and if it was corrupt, due process should apply.... Rather than urging a thorough investigation to establish the truth, (and innocence), the DPJ seem bent on obstruction.

But even if Ozawa is forced to resign, the fact that Muneo Suzuki a former LDP politican was convicted on corruption charges a couple of years ago, and is now back as a serving MP, doesn't give me much hope that accountablity and transparency have improved.


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