The election of Taro Aso as Japan’s 59th prime minister of the modern era, seems certain to usher in a period on introspection for the world’s second-largest economic power.
While Mr Aso is publicly saying his priority is to launch a series of economic reforms over a three-year period aimed at stimulating the private sector, most observers believe his energies will be directed into manoeuvring his Liberal Democratic Party into a snap general election he hopes it can win.
That could be any time between now and next September when an election must be held. Until then, the leadership will be firmly focused on the public opinion polls.
The comic-reading Mr Aso, who likes to emphasise his family’s links with the Satsuma samurai clan, is known to take a more right-wing position on many issues than his predecessor, the unpopular and largely ineffective Yasuo Fukuda, but the question is whether he will be in a position to exercise his influence in any meaningful way, at least in the short term.
He will face the same problem that dogged Mr Fukuda - an Upper House controlled by the Opposition that senses it has a real chance of prising loose the LDP’s 12-year grip on power. His hope, and many people will see it as a forlorn hope, is to get an early “bounce” in the ratings that will allow him to go to the electorate and secure another term for his embattled party.
But the signs are that the Japanese public is becoming jaundiced with revolving door leaderships. “Another year, another PM” says Richard Jerram, chief economist of Macquarie Securities in Tokyo, noting that Mr Fukuda had lasted just 12 months in office since replacing Shinzo Abe, himself a one-year wonder. At 68 and the LDP’s current Secretary General, Mr Aso is hardly likely to inspire confidence as a fresh face with radical measures to spark the nation’s political and economic revival.
Speaking in Canberra last week [eds September 16] Hiroshi Takaku, a former journalist now involved in political exchange programs between Japan, Australia and the United States, says the fundamental problem in his country is one of governance. “There are structural difficulties at all levels of government - the people are angry,” he said.
He believes the LDP has lost an excellent opportunity to promote a new generation into power. “However, the faction leaders were unwilling to lose influence, so we are seeing the traditional party reaction to a change of leadership,” he said.
“I do not believe Mr Aso has the capability to challenge the bureaucracy which is the real power broker. The public will see through him soon enough.”
However, he believes the current internal turbulence will not have any long-term effect on Japan’s relationship with Australia. “There has been a great deal of talk that with the election of the Labor Government in Australia and with Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister, there will be a policy shift towards China - I do not believe this will be true,” he said.
“I think events surrounding the Olympic Torch Relay and the Beijing Olympics themselves have emphasised that there is no democracy or freedom of speech in China.
“Japan needs Australia to work with it in the Asia-Pacific region where it is still mistrusted because of the legacy of World War II.”
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