Friday, December 28, 2012

Asians Who Made a Difference

If there were an award for the Person of the Year in Asia, it would undoubtedly go to President Thein Sien of Myanmar. Thought at first to be just another general in a line of military dictators stretching back more than 40 years, Thein Sien astonished the world by taking concrete steps to dismantle the dictatorship.

He turned down Chinese-sponsored energy projects, released political prisoners and permitted free and fair elections. The latter, held in April of this year saw longtime democracy advocate and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi win a seat in parliament. Her National League for Democracy Party won 43 of 44 contested seats in a special election.
The changes did not go unnoticed. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made two visits to Myanmar during the year.  Many sanctions that had been imposed for human rights abuses were lifted and Washington appointed an ambassador. And President Barack Obama visited Myanmar shortly after his re-election in November.

These positive events were marred by continuing conflicts with Myanmar’s major ethnic groups, including an ugly reprise of the discrimination against the Muslim minority in the northwest state of Arakan called the Rohingas. Other Asians who made a difference in 2012 in Asia:
This list would not yet include Xi Jinping, who was elevated to head the Chinese Communist Party at the party congress in November. His rise was heavily scripted. He will undoubtedly be a major mover and shaker in the coming year, but in 2012 the newsmaker of the year in China was without doubt the deposed head of the party in Chongqing, Bo Xilai.

The Bo Xilai saga began in February when his enforcer, Wang Bo, fled to the U.S. Consulate in Chongqing where he was denied political asylum. He had good reason for his fear as the apparatus that Bo had erected to advance his career and that of his family was beginning to crumble.
The man who had openly aspired to win a seat on the inner council of China was expelled from the party, his wife, Gu Kai Lai, was convicted of murdering a British businessman, Bo was accused of lavishing expensive cars on his son, presumably paid for  on a party cadre’s salary.

Ostensibly, Bo is being held incommunicado while the government investigates his involvement in corruption. The real reason for his downfall: too naked display of ambition and a lack of deference to the other party elders. His championship of the songs and trappings of the Cultural Revolution era also was a slap in the face of the leadership.
It is said there are no second acts in Japanese politics, but Shinzo Abe, proved them wrong becoming prime minister of Japan once again in late December when the Liberal Democratic Party won a landslide victory in the Dec. 16 general election.

Abe served for about one year from 2006-2007, but his first term was not much of a success. He was criticized for putting his conservative hobby horses, such as amending the constitution to eliminate or alter its no-war clause over bread and butter matters. He then resigned for ill health setting off a series of one-year premier.
He seems to have taken criticism to heart, as he and his party put reinvigorating the nation’s sputtering economy (Japan officially entered a recessions shortly before the voting) on the front burner with a program of public spending and mild inflation, while downplaying the conservative stuff.

The most important Park in South Korea this year was not Park Geun-hye, the new president, but Park Jae-sang, the rapper who goes by the stage name of Psy. He and his “Gangnam Style” performances took the world by storm making himself a multimillionaire in the process.
As of the end of the year his act had receives a billion hits on YouTube, the most in the short history of the new medium and about one in every seven people on the planet. In some ways he was the world’s first entertainer to hit it really big almost exclusively on social media and online advertisements. It also underscores the enduring popularity of Korean popular culture.

By the way, the “gang” in Gangnum has nothing to do with thugs. Gangnum is a fashionable district of Seoul, and presumably inspires the “style” in Gangnum Style.
Love him or hate him, one has to take one’s hat off to an octogenarian who can still influence world events. Shintaro Ishihara almost single handedly vaulted the Japanese territorial dispute with China over a set of unpopulated islands in the East China Sea into a serious confrontation.

He did this by declaring that Tokyo would buy the Senkaku islands from their private owner. That forced the government of former PM Yoshihiko Noda to nationalize them. That in turn set off anti-Japanese demonstrations in China and provocations at sea  that continue to percolate and will likely be an important test for the new government in 2013.
Indeed, 2012 was notable for escalating maritime disputes. For the first time in memory all of the disputes were on the boil in the same year, from the Spratlys in the South China Sea to the Dokdo in the Sea of Japan, where South Korea’s incumbent president Lee Myung-bak irritated Tokyo by personally visiting the rocks.

Ishihara resigned as governor of Tokyo in October and was made the leader of a new “third force” conservative party founded by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto this year. It won 51 seats on its first national election but failed to make much of an impact outside of its Osaka base despite Ishihara’s presence at the head of the ticket.

Decline and Fall

It took Japan more than 50 years to build a credible opposition party to the venerable Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), but it only took a little more than three years for the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) to self-destruct. It is uncertain whether it can ever rebuild itself from the ruins this month’s electoral catastrophe. 

Party leaders knew they were going to be whipped, but nobody suspected the shellacking that it would get. The party lost about 175 seats in the lower House of Representatives, down from the 308 it won in its own landslide election in 2009. Yet even in defeat that year LDP had retained more than 100 seats to build on in the next election.
With only 57 seats left in the house, the party’s prospects may be too low for a come back. It is only slightly stronger than the new Japan Restoration Party founded by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto and led (for now) by ex-Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara. It won 51 seats, mostly from its Osaka base.

Although an unprecedented number of cabinet members lost their re-election bids, the party does have an nucleus of attractive younger members who survived the debacle who could lead a revival, assuming they are not discouraged by the long, long slog ahead of them.
It is hard to remember the excitement that political watchers had in the very early months of the new regime after its big win in 2009, yet things began to go south very early in the life of the new government. Here are some benchmarks in the long slide to defeat and perhaps oblivion:

The Hakayama Debacle  In retrospect, the party couldn’t have picked a worse person to be the very first opposition prime minister than the goofy Yukio Hakayama. The long-time fixer Ichiro Ozawa was to have been the first DPJ premier, but he was charged with illegal election financing (he has since been acquitted of all charges) and resigned as party president.
Hatoyama took it upon himself to open and presumably to “solve” the vexing question of stationing too many American troops on Okinawa. There was no special reason for him to take up this pet crusade. It wasn’t mentioned in the party’s manifesto; nor was there pressure from Japanese public, at least outside of Okinawa.

The novice prime minister must have thought that solving the problem to the satisfaction of all three parties, Tokyo, Washington and the Okinawan people would make him a hero. Instead, he made a hash of it and was forced to resign as prime minister less than a year into his term.
It had the additional effect of irritating Washington, which believed it had a done deal, after 15 years of negotiating a relocation and downsizing of the American presence on the island. U.S. officials were openly contemptuous of the PM, which got back to the Japanese people.

Chasing the Waste Phantom  The Democratic party platform contained many expensive provisions for expanded social services, such as a bounty to encourage Japanese to have more children and a the abolition of tuition for public secondary schools. It would be paid for by eliminating “waste” and unnecessary spending in the budget.
Shortly after it took office the new government created a special panel to identify wasteful programs that could be eliminated and their funds directed to DPJ projects. As if turned out, it could not find nearly enough waste to enable it to support large new spending programs and thus began to renege on their election promises.

A Man Named Ozawa   Ichiro Ozawa, the longtime political operator and the man who would have been the party’s first prime minister without the intervention of the Public Prosecutor’s office was a drag on party unity for nearly all of its time in power. What to do about him vexed the party through most of those years.
Ozawa is a kind of can’t-live-with-him, can-live-without-him kind of guy. He has a genius for finding candidates to run for office, and is said to have personally selected, groomed about 100 of the party’s winning candidates in 2009. The party is grateful for his electioneering skills but wary of him because of an unsavory air of corruption.

Shortly after he succeeded Nakayama as prime minister, Naoto Kan was fighting for his political life against an Ozawa challenge to the leadership, a challenge that Kan won by the party as a whole but one in which he just barely carried a majority of the party’s members of parliament. It was not auspicious for a successful term.
Fukushima  Certainly no Japanese government since the end of World War II, and certainly no inexperienced government, has been faced with a challenge as big as the “triple” disaster of earthquake, tsunami and multiple nuclear power plant meltdowns that began in March, 2011.

Kan was roundly criticized for flying to Fukushima less than 24 hours into the nuclear accident and getting in the way of the technicians at the site wrestling with the severely deteriorating situation at three units. Then he seemed to take the other extreme by holing up in the prime minister’s office leaving it to the Emperor to be the country’s “consoler in chief.”
Too Much Dojo, not Enough Gold Fish  The last DPJ prime minister, Yasuhiko Noda, loudly announced he was risking his political life on passing the increase in the national sales tax. It proved an apt prophesy, not just for himself but for his party. Noda had previously served as finance minister where he came under the influence of the finance mandarins who strongly believe that the tax hike was necessary for financial solvency.

Not only did Noda abandon yet another party promise, in this case not to introduce the sales tax during its first term in office he put paid to any more pretext that the new government wanted to challenge the powerful bureaucracy and put more policy-making into the hands of elected officials. This was supposedly at the heart of the DPJ agenda.
On taking office Noda said he would be a dojo not a goldfish, a Japanese term that roughly meant he would be a work horse not a show horse. But as his extremely lackluster performance in the first National Press Club debate showed, in an election, it helps to be something of a show horse.



Thursday, December 13, 2012

Right Turn

 Japan is poised to take a sharp turn to the right, as Japanese define the term, in the coming general election that will be held Dec. 16. All indications point to a return of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) under the leadership of the hawkish, one-time prime minister, Shinzo Abe.
Abe exuded confidence during a debate Nov. 30 at the National Press Club that he will be prime minister in a few short weeks. The incumbent PM, Yoshihiko Noda of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) seemed strangely passive, befitting a leader who knows that he faces ignominious defeat and can’t do much about it.

Conservatism is somewhat different in Japan than it is in other countries, such as the United States. It is not defined, as it often is in U.S., by opposition to tax increases (indeed, the LDP provided the votes to pass a doubling of the national sales tax last summer).
No, the term in Japan usually refers to a more nationalistic diplomacy, revisions to the pacifistic constitution with its war-renouncing Article 9, more defense spending and a stronger position on territorial disputes, such as over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Abe strongly supports all of these issues.

The LDP election platform is tailor-made to Abe’s hawkish views. It proposes to:

  • Soften or eliminate the war-renouncing Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution.
  • Interpret the existing clause to permit Japan to engage in “collective self-defense”.
  • Elevate the status of the Self-Defense forces to that of a National Defense Force

Not specifically enumerated in the platform are other conservative priorities, such a resuming official visits to the Yasukuni shrine, dropping or revising the 1993 Kono Statement in which Japan apologized for recruiting “comfort women” to serve soldiers during the war and reinforcing Japan’s sovereignty over the Senkaku islands.
All of these proposals are likely to increase friction with Japan’s Asian neighbors, especially Korea and China. Beijing in particular opposes the official shrine visits because the Yasukuni hosts spirits of 14 convicted “Class A” war criminals.

It seems as if Abe has just stepped out of his one-year of as prime minister five years ago (2006-2007) where among his accomplishments was he elevated the defense agency to that of a fully-fledged Defense Ministry with a seat at the cabinet. He was also the first Japanese premier to visit NATO headquarters in Brussels.
During the debate, Abe hedged on whether he would resume the Yasukuni Shrine visits, although he said he regretted that he had avoided them during his previous tenure. His predecessor Junichiro Koizumi had sent Sino-Japanese relations into the deep freeze by making official visits; Abe discontinued them to repair diplomatic ties.

On the sensitive Senkaku issue Abe favors erecting some kind of fishermen’s shelter on one of the islands, staffed with civil servants. There is no great clamor among actual fishermen for such a port of refuge. It is merely an excuse to raise the rising sun flag on the Senkaku.
Changing the constitution is formidable task, requiring two-thirds affirmative votes in both houses of parliament and a national referendum. Conservative objections to the charter come not just from some of its specific provisions but also simply from the fact that it was written by Americans while they were occupying Japan .

Abe noted that before the DPJ took power, no foreign head of state had set foot on any of the islands that Japan claims. Two years ago Russia’s then president Dmitry Medvedev visited one of the southern Kurile islands, and this year South Korea’s president Lee Myong-bak set foot on the Dokdo/Takeshima island. Abe said this showed the weakness of the current government,
On these kinds of conservative issues, Abe is essentially in tune with the new “third force” Japan Restoration Party (JRP) founded by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto and now officially led by former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara, who is even more conservative on these issues than Abe.

It is widely assumed that the LDP and its long-time coalition partner New Komeito will form a coalition with Hashimoto’s group, although, ironically, Komeito, differs considerably on the constitutional issues that now seem to animate the current LDP. That probably won’t break the long-time alliance.
Considering that the major contenders are center right (DPJ) right (JRP) and farther right (LDP), there was an obvious opening for a leftwing party; leave it to political dealmaker and organizer extraordinaire, Ichiro Ozawa, to recognize this and move in to fill the vacuum.

Ozawa dropped out of the news after he bolted the DPJ last summer over the issue of raising the national sales tax, taking about 35 MPs with him. He founded a new entity called Peoples’ Lives First Party. At the time it was thought to be a desperate move of DPJ members of parliament worried they would lose their seats and hoping that Ozawa could save them.
He was doing what he does best, working behind the scenes, in this case cultivating an alliance with the governor of Shiga prefecture in western Japan, Yukiko Kada, who announced last week that she was forming an avowedly anti-nuclear power party, the Japan of the Future Party, tapping into post-Fukushima angst over nuclear power.

Ozawa immediately disbanded his party and merged it with Kada, giving the fledgling political group, some political heft three weeks before the voting takes place. It also creates a challenger to Hashimoto’s Osaka based Restoration Party as the “third force” in the coming election.
It remains to be seen how many of Abe’s nationalist notions he can turn into actual accomplishments. The Senkaku fracus that began last summer and continues to percolate, raises some anxiety over national security and a rising China, but there is hardly a groundswell of popular pressure for most of the things Abe wants.

He may find, as he did during his first time as prime minister, that the Japanese public is still more concerned with bread and butter livelihood issues than it is about changing the constitution. It is not for nothing that the wily Ozawa named his new and now disbanded party Peoples’ Lives First.