Political goals

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 July, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 July, 2003, 12:00am

Under the heavy clouds of the annual summer rains, a new political season is arriving in Japan. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is pursuing re-election as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in September. If he prevails over the strong anti-reform forces within the party, he is expected to dissolve the Diet and call for a general election, probably in November, to choose the 480 members of the powerful House of Representatives.

The nation's media is already getting worked up, and there is a new buzzword - manifesto, which means a summary of policies.

This has been touted as a possible instrument of political reform in Japan ever since Britain's Labour Party won over the public by making easy-to-understand campaign pledges accompanied by 'numerical targets'.

The most vocal Japanese advocate of manifestos is Masayasu Kitagawa, a former governor of Mie prefecture, who decided to become a university professor despite rumours that he would seek a leadership position in national politics. He has called for 'contracts' with the public, which are made up of specific political goals, with time frames and financial terms. Some new candidates in the local elections last spring took up his call to offer a manifesto and actually went on to win.

In fact, there are growing signs that manifestos are grabbing the hearts of Japanese voters, many of whom are concerned about leaders' incompetence in solving the country's problems.

A number of grassroots citizens' groups and private think-tanks have announced their support for the manifesto concept.

Even the Japan Association of Corporate Executives (Keizai Doyukai), a powerful business organisation, last week called for political parties to offer manifestos in the upcoming general election. It has also produced its own model manifesto, covering a wide range of reforms and goals, which it plans to use in evaluating the parties' own policy summaries.

The People's Conference for Creating New Japan, an influential advisory body made up of leading businessmen, scholars and economists, is also a major advocate of the manifesto initiative. It conducted a survey of all parliamentarians in May and found that 77.9 per cent of respondents (who accounted for about 50 per cent of the total) were in favour of issuing a manifesto in the upcoming elections.

'The survey's outcome indicates a new awareness among politicians about the changing political culture, which requires greater transparency and accountability,' said Tsuyoshi Sasaki, president of the University of Tokyo, who leads the People's Conference along with Mr Kitagawa.

A group of 62 young parliamentarians across party lines also formed a pro-manifesto group last week. Together, they plan to propose a bill to make it legal to distribute free manifesto leaflets and to campaign on the internet.

As for Mr Koizumi, he has agreed to offer his manifesto, but it is not going to be easy. At first, he claimed that his manifesto in the party presidential election, if he is re-elected, would become the party's manifesto in the general election. But he is facing fierce resistance to his promise to privatise postal and highway services and to decentralise government power to local authorities.

Meanwhile this week, the two largest opposition parties - Naoto Kan's Democratic Party and Ichiro Ozawa's Liberal Party - agreed to merge in the next two months, apparently to create a new force to sway the outcome of the general election. You can bet they will try to make the most of the growing public interest in manifestos.