Q+A-Japan opposition seeks to curb bureaucrats' clout
(For more on Japan's election click [ID:nPOLJP])
By Linda Sieg
TOKYO Aug 31 (Reuters) - The opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) rode to victory in an election on Sunday by attacking what it says is a system that gives excessive power to bureaucrats in formulating policies.
The Democrats won by a landslide, ending the conservative Liberal Democratic Party's (LDP) half-century of almost unbroken rule and ushering in a government pledged to pay more heed to consumers and workers than companies. [ID:nT44020]
Below are some questions and answers about Japanese bureaucrats, and why clipping their wings matters.
WHY ARE JAPAN'S BUREAUCRATS SO POWERFUL?
Japanese bureaucrats can trace their power over policy -- greater than that of many Western counterparts -- to their status as direct servants of the emperor before World War Two.
After Japan's 1945 defeat, elite bureaucrats helped fill a vacuum created by the U.S. Occupation forces' purge of wartime political leaders, and many later became politicians themselves.
Bureaucrats' control over policy has increased during the LDP's long rule, with ministry officials building up close ties with ruling party lawmakers keen to fund pet projects to woo voters in their constituencies.
HOW DO BUREAUCRATS CONTROL POLICY?
LDP politicians have relied heavily on bureaucrats for policy ideas and drafting legislation, and ministry officials have played a central role in drawing up annual national budgets.
Critics say the result is policies and spending programmes that reflect the priorities of individual ministries, rather than a comprehensive policy vision outlined by political leaders.
HOW DO THE DEMOCRATS PLAN TO REDUCE BUREAUCRATS' CLOUT?
As specific ways to reduce bureaucratic control of policy and eliminate a dual structure in which the ruling party and cabinet compete over policy-making, the Democrats plan to:
-- Put at least 100 lawmakers in top posts at ministries
-- Create a National Strategy Bureau reporting to the prime minster, comprised of public and private-sector members, to outline a policy vision and formulate the budget framework.
-- Ban the practice of "amakudari" or "descent from heaven", in which retired ministry bureaucrats parachute into cushy jobs in quasi-public bodies, and create an Administrative Reform Council to scrutinise budgets and eliminate waste and abuses.
-- Introduce a performance-based appraisal system for top-level civil servants.
WILL THEY SUCCEED?
Difficult to predict, since the party will have to balance its goal of reducing bureaucrats' control of policy with the need to draw on their expertise. Japan has experienced a change of government only once since the LDP was formed in 1955, and then for a mere 10 months, so precedents are lacking.
Making allies among a far from monolithic bureaucracy would be vital, especially when it comes to the powerful finance ministry. Experts also say that while form and structure matter, even more important is the ability of politicians to exercise leadership.
A number of former bureaucrats are now Democrat lawmakers and this could help in figuring out how to work out a modus vivendi with their one-time colleagues.
WHAT WOULD THIS MEAN FOR POLICIES?
Many experts agree that while a policy-making process dominated by bureaucrats worked well when Japan's goal was to catch up with the West, the system has had far less success meeting new challenges from slow growth and an ageing population.
That's because tough decisions about allocating limited resources cannot be made by officials, who tend to work according to previously set priorities.
Changing policy direction should in theory be easier if lawmakers rather than bureaucrats are in charge.
But analysts also say that while the decision-making structure matters, even more important is the ability of political leaders to make the tough calls.
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