Opportunity lost for change in Japan

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 September, 2008, 12:00am

Japan's troubles point squarely towards the need for change. Its economy is facing recession, its social services are faltering, ties with neighbours China and South Korea could be far better and there are divisions within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party preventing it from governing effectively. Yet despite this, the party's faithful have chosen as their new leader, and consequently the nation's fourth prime minister in two years, the deeply conservative and gaffe-prone veteran politician, Taro Aso.

Mr Aso beat out four other contenders, among them former defence minister Yuriko Koike, who was the first woman to run for the position. Although he has tried to popularise his image by contending that he is an avid reader of comic books, he is from the same political cloth from which the LDP has drawn its leaders throughout the 53 years of its existence and almost equal time in power. That means pandering to the LDP's rural and corporate powerbases, maintaining the party's close links to the bureaucracy and taking an uncompromising, nationalist line towards the region.

In Mr Aso, the party believes it has a leader who can unite bickering factions to fight polls that must be held within a year. He has to do this quickly; the opposition Democratic Party of Japan stole some of the thunder of his appointment on Sunday by re-electing as its leader Ichiro Ozawa, the architect of the party's unprecedented taking of the upper house of parliament in elections last year. Mr Ozawa accepted the position by promising to put the livelihoods of Japanese first through an agenda that includes restoring health and pension systems, reforming the way in which the budget is determined and working for international peace. Such objectives should be the aim of every government, but the LDP has been hampered in this regard because of its leadership changes and entrenched policies. Japan and the region are, as a result, suffering.

All is not gloom. Japan is a democracy. The LDP has opted for the same old style of leadership and thinking. Within a year, though - most likely sooner rather than later - voters will be able to determine which party is best able to make the break with the past that the country so sorely needs to move forward.