DPJ’s setback may be good for Japan

Hatoyama’s resignation removes weakness at the top

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Another year, another Japanese prime minister. On Wednesday, not only did Yukio Hatoyama, Japan’s ineffectual leader, quit. So too did Ichiro Ozawa, secretary-general of the Democratic Party of Japan, the man credited with masterminding the 2009 electoral victory that ended half a century of Liberal Democratic Party domination. The public had been desperate to rid the country of the LDP and give the opposition a chance. But Mr Hatoyama’s party has been a terrible letdown.

As prime minister, he has dithered and thought out loud. His indecisiveness was symbolised by his humiliating climbdown over the relocation of the Futenma US military base. That political miscalculation alone merited resignation. As if that were not bad enough, both he and Mr Ozawa, the party’s “shadow shogun”, were damaged by the drip-drip of a political funding scandal.

At first blush, their twin resignation looks like an unmitigated disaster, both for the DPJ and for Japan. Without Mr Ozawa, the DPJ is deprived of its most astute strategist weeks before an upper-house election that could determine its ability to pass legislation for the next three years. As for Japan, it looks as if any hope for a new kind of politics has been dashed. Instead, the country has reverted to the well-worn path of political sleaze and now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t prime ministers.

There is another possibility. With both Mr Hatoyama and Mr Ozawa gone, Japan’s body politic has been lanced of two festering boils. That could actually leave the DPJ in a stronger position. The party has not been all bad. It has steered Japan fairly sensibly through the economic crisis and taken on bureaucratic privilege. It has also enacted some half-credible policies aimed at weaning Japan off export-dependence, such as paying a child allowance. An ill-thought-out reversal of postal privatisation may now fall by the wayside.

That means that, under the right leadership, the DPJ could conceivably hit the reset button. In Naoto Kan – finance minister and frontrunner to take over as party leader, and hence prime minister – it has a politician with the potential to rally both party and country. Mr Kan’s popularity dates back 15 years when, as a minister, he helped expose a tainted blood scandal. Since then, he has co-founded the DPJ and articulated fairly consistent economic policies, including raising consumption tax to bring public debt under tighter control. If the DPJ’s next leader can convince the public that he has a plan and that he is sticking to it, something good could yet come out of this political farce.

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