Sunday, 6 June 2010

Beyond Blighty: New PM in Japan - again!

In the last four years Japan has had six Prime Ministers. Quite a startling fact, made more startling by the variety of reasons for their departure. Junichiro Koizumi, who had been Prime Minister for five years, retired in 2006 and was replaced by Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe. On his first anniversary of coming to power, Mr. Abe resigned for health reason, although during his year in power there had been two resignations and a suicide in his cabinet as a result of scandals which, amongst other things, lead to a significant drop in the government's poll numbers. Yasuo Fukuda was the next Prime Minister, but he was forced to resign two days short of his first anniversary in the job after failing to get crucial legislation through the upper house of the Diet (the Parliament of Japan).

Mr. Fukuda was replaced by Taro Aso who left office less than a year later in a more conventional way for democratic leaders – he lost the general election. The election's winner was Yukio Hatoyama who ended sixty years of almost uninterrupted Liberal Democratic Party government. It was hoped that an electoral mandate would lead to a sustained period in power for the new Prime Minister; in fact Mr. Hatoyama was in office for less than seven months. The latest Prime Ministerial departure was due to the cabinet resigning en masse following the breaking of an election promise to close the US base on Okinawa. The next and (as I write this) current Prime Minister of Japan is Naoto Kan, the former Minister of Finance. Mr. Kan must be hoping he can last longer than his most recent predecessors.

During Gordon Brown's periods of unpopularity in the country, Labour MPs had plotted on several occasions to remove the Prime Minister from power. The argument against such action was the myth that changing the PM twice in one Parliament would be democratically unsound. Tony Blair won the election in 2005 and was replaced by Gordon Brown in 2007 who thought about having his own election three years earlier than was required, before infamously changing his mind at the last second. As the economic crisis emerged and Labour's place in the poll dropped lower than shares in Northern Rock, Labour MPs began to wonder if a different, more media aware Prime Minister might help the party's chances more than Mr. Brown.

To change a PM a second time without consulting the people, so the argument against removing Mr. Brown went, would lead to an immediate election. This argument seemed to prevent a coup against the PM as Labour MPs feared what would happened to them if there were an election soon after they'd stabbed their leader in the back. However, as Japan shows, the argument was flawed as in a parliamentary system, the people elected the legislature which then determines the government. Another flaw in the argument is this; why is changing the Prime Minister once without an election acceptable, but not twice or three times or more?

Perhaps Japan shows the real argument against such action and why continuity in government is important. Aside from the democratic issue, Prime Ministers need to be able to feel comfortable and confident doing the job (this is true of all work) but it takes time before this can happen. Also, a nation's current prestige is often related to the people who are in power at the moment. Just think of the world's view of the United States under George W. Bush and compared it to the US under President Obama. In an economic crisis, a nation's prestige is important, but not knowing a country's political leader because they change every few months cannot help that country's standing.

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