Back to being civil servants
By Kwan Weng Kin
TO VIEW Sunday's historic general election in Japan as a mere transfer of power from a decades-old ruling party to a fledgling opposition force would be to miss the wood for the trees.
The Democratic Party of Japan's (DPJ) bounty of a record 308 seats in the 480-seat Lower House, mostly at the expense of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), was the modern-day equivalent of a successful peasant uprising in a feudal society.
Mr Yukio Hatoyama, the 62-year-old DPJ leader slated to become Japan's next prime minister, captured the meaning of the revolt when he said the electoral victory on Sunday was not his party's.
'It is the result of the Japanese people asking themselves, what on earth are our politicians doing?'
The Japanese people, of course, did not just ask. They did something about it.
Get this right: the protagonist on Sunday was not the DPJ but the Japanese people.
And the power that they had wanted greater accountability for had resided, not in the LDP, but in the hands of the elite national bureaucracy. Thus, the transfer of power was from the bureaucracy into the hands of the people, represented by the Democrats.
A short detour into history will put this into perspective: The elite Japanese bureaucracy has its roots in the 19th century Meiji period. The country's most intellectually endowed youths were given special training to staff a bureaucracy to run the country.
When the LDP was formed in 1955 and became the ruling party, it made the bureaucracy an equal partner, essentially leaving it to run the country as it had always done.
The LDP's constituency included corporate Japan, which was given every ounce of assistance to ensure it succeeded.
The people, especially those in the rural areas, were mere cogs in a well-oiled voting machinery. They were plied with pork barrel in return for votes.
Globalisation, which saw corporations moving jobs overseas to lower-cost centres, and economic recession, which made pork increasingly hard to come by, gradually rendered such a political system unworkable.
Observers say the LDP should have been finished in 2001 when then Premier Yoshiro Mori's approval ratings fell to single digits. But along came maverick politician Junichiro Koizumi, who used the mantra of postal reforms and juicy sound bites to score a thunderous win over the opposition. He gave the LDP a new lease of life temporarily but failed to staunch the inevitable decline.
It fell to Prime Minister Taro Aso, who had called Sunday's election, to make the LDP realise just what a spent and irrelevant force it had become. The political model that had kept the LDP in power was long past its use-by date.
As Mr Aso himself admitted, the public backlash against the LDP was not the result of anger over recent political scandals or the hopelessly mismanaged pension fund. It was the result of frustrations that had been building up for years.
Defeating the LDP required the patient construction of an alternative political party.
Ending the LDP's domination had been the cherished dream of Mr Ichiro Ozawa, the former LDP secretary-general who is much disliked for his brusqueness but secretly admired for his tenacity in trying to turn Japan into a mature, two-party democracy.
Mr Ozawa left the LDP in 1993 and after a rather circuitous political journey, became leader of the DPJ in 2006, an event that was as surprising as it was fortuitous for the party.
But it was not until Mr Ozawa subsequently led the DPJ to victory over the LDP in the 2007 Upper House elections, that his vision seemed within reach. On Sunday, it came to fruition.
Under incoming Prime Minister Hatoyama, the bureaucracy will not be equal partners but will be made to assume the role of civil servants and serve their political masters to the best of their ability. It will be a role that long-time bureaucrats used to manipulating LDP politicians may find difficult to fit into.
Fortunately for the DPJ, many younger bureaucrats who are not steeped in the old traditions are said to be in favour of a new working relationship with the party.
Changing the bureaucracy's role, however, is not meant to denigrate it in any way. As a huge repository of information and staffed by many of the nation's brightest people, the bureaucracy has undoubtedly served the country well.
The bureaucracy was the reason Japan had a reputation abroad for being extremely stable. Although prime ministers changed with alarming regularity, government policy remained remarkably consistent, thanks to the rock-steady central bureaucracy.
But bureaucrats are not politicians, do not see things with the same perspective as politicians, and owe the people no direct responsibility.
Forging a new relationship with the bureaucracy will be a test of Mr Hatoyama's political skills.
Propelled into government by people power, the DPJ will also have to evolve a working style that does not treat the people as outsiders.
Adopting the ways of LDP politicians, such as holding secret meetings in exclusive Japanese restaurants away from prying eyes, probably will not cut it. The new framework that the DPJ will have to work with will place a premium on transparency.
For the Japanese people, a record 69.3 per cent of whom voted in the election, it will also not do to take a hands-off approach to politics until the next election rolls around. As the Mainichi Shimbun daily said in an editorial yesterday: 'As the people had entrusted the administration of the country to the DPJ, they have a responsibility from now on to play a greater participatory role in, and also to keep an eye on, the country's politics.'