Tokyo: Who will become Japan’s sixth premier in five years is anyone’s guess, but one bet looks safe: he’s unlikely to provide the bold leadership that voters and investors in the troubled economy crave.
Factors ranging from an education system that rewards conformity to a political arena where personal ties matter more than ideas make improbable the emergence of a charismatic leader like Junichiro Koizumi, who swept to power in 2001 promising reform and served a rare five-year term before stepping down.
“There are underlying structural problems that lead to a paucity of political talent in Japan - it’s not just the (ruling) Democratic Party,” said Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Tokyo’s Sophia University. “Koizumi was just the exception that proves the rule,” he said.
Koizumi, a media-savvy maverick who once quipped that approving anti-impotence drug Viagra mattered more than cutting pollution, not only entertained voters but inspired with pledges of reforms that, while painful, would break vested interests’ stranglehold on policies. He promised to destroy his own long-dominant Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in the process if needed and made good on his threat to oust opponents of his plan to privatise the giant postal system as a symbol of reform, then led his party to a huge election victory in 2005.
Few had predicted that Koizumi, a third-generation LDP lawmaker, would be more than a temporary poster-boy for reform. “Once he got in, he turned out to be much more effective as a communicator and rallier of public support than anyone anticipated,” said Columbia University professor Gerry Curtis.
Japan’s next leader has a slew of challenges on his plate, from battling a soaring yen and forging a post-nuclear crisis energy policy to rebuilding from the March tsunami and reining in public debt while paying for reconstruction and the bulging costs of an ageing society.
Seven Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) lawmakers including finance minister Yoshihiko Noda and former foreign minister Seiji Maehara are now jostling to succeed unpopular Prime Minister Naoto Kan - already the second premier since the Democrats swept to power two years ago.
The 49-year-old Maehara, a conservative security expert who like Noda graduated from the Matsushita Institute of Government and Management, a school to train business and political leaders, tops recent voter surveys of preferred politicians.
“Of all the candidates now, the one who has the best chance of leadership is probably Maehara, but (the question is) whether he can show the kind of leadership Koizumi showed, mobilising the public as leverage against his own party,” Curtis said.
But Democrats, a fractious grouping of former LDP lawmakers, ex-Socialists and younger conservatives, may instead opt for an old-fashioned, LDP-style leader - someone like agriculture minister Michihiko Kano, 69, an 11-term veteran with few clear policies and few enemies.
“The Kan government excluded Mr. Ozawa and Mr. Hatoyama and that was not in line with the DPJ’s true politics of ‘all on one team’,” Kano supporter Tenzo Okumura told Reuters. He was referring to Kan’s efforts to sideline scandal-tainted DPJ powerbroker Ichiro Ozawa and his ally, former premier Yukio Hatoyama. “What is being sought now is experience and know-how,” Okumura added.
Like Koizumi, the Democrats swept to power promising to change the way Japan is governed after decades of conservative LDP rule. But despite their very different styles, both Kan and predecessor Hatoyama floundered in the face of a divided parliament and a feud-driven ruling party.
DPJ lawmakers such as Okumura, experts say, appear to have learned the wrong lesson from the Liberal Democrats’ decades in power and ignored the reasons for Koizumi’s success - his willingness to make enemies by sticking to his stance. “When the DPJ was formed, they took in anyone who opposed the LDP, and since the LDP stood for everything, so did the DPJ,” said Chuo University professor Steven Reed.
The need to get opposition parties, who control parliament’s upper house and can block bills, to cooperate, also works against the selection of a bold leader with well-defined policies. “They somehow need to reach out to the opposition for some legislative coalition and that reinforces the tendency to go for someone who is bland and uninspiring,” Sophia’s Nakano said.
Pure politics aside, an education system that stifles individualism may also be to blame for Japan’s long line of mostly colourless leaders. “The education system makes sure that people who stand out are shunted aside,” Reed said. “If they get bold leadership, it will be by accident.”