Elections the best hope for Japan to break knot

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 September, 2008, 12:00am

Whoever succeeds Yasuo Fukuda as Japan's prime minister has an unenviable job. The country's economy is faltering and reforms have been held up by a hostile opposition. Elections must take place within a year, giving the successor a limited opportunity to build support, keep the coalition government together, woo opponents and reverse the country's woes before heading to the polls. This is a tall order, if not mission impossible. That puts the electorate in charge of Japan's destiny.

Mr Fukuda quit in the face of persistent falls in his popularity, as did the man from whom he took over, Shinzo Abe. Like Mr Abe, he gave no notice of his intention to quit, putting Japan on the back foot at a time when big issues need to be tackled. Whoever takes power will need to bring a breath of fresh air to a paralysed system.

The early frontrunner is Taro Aso, who has already tried three times to become prime minister. He is charismatic, popular and has vast political experience. If he becomes prime minister, he will need to make the case for holding off on an early election. Whoever becomes prime minister, their argument for delaying the poll should be that the needs of the people come first and that their most immediate need is to see the economy recover from a second-quarter slump. A financial stimulus package unveiled by Mr Fukuda last week has to be taken up and stauncher efforts made to gain the support of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).

To succeed, whoever takes over from Mr Fukuda must convince the public that the Liberal Democratic Party has the people and the ideas to move Japan forward. Elections for the upper house of parliament 13 months ago showed that for the first time in 53 years of almost continuous LDP rule, there was a belief that change was needed. The DPJ's victory and its refusal to co-operate has led to political deadlock. Even the return of a leader with the popularity of Mr Abe's predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, would not alter the party's predicament.

The next prime minister must move the LDP into the future. Domestic concerns come first, but foreign policy cannot be ignored. Mr Fukuda reversed the negative policies of his hawkish predecessors, building friendlier ties with China and South Korea. In the interests of peace and prosperity, this has to continue.

Japan's best hope of moving beyond the current disarray lies in elections. Its people need to decide whether they want the LDP or opposition in government. If the LDP cannot change its ways, it deserves to be passed over. That is the way of democracy.