Building the inner cabinet

In the transition plan released by the DPJ's committee to prepare for government in September 2003, the party stressed that in the first five days after winning a general election, the victorious DPJ would convene a transition team that would quickly put into place the rudiments of a new system for governing.

Critical to this new system would be the speedy appointment of senior cabinet ministers, which would mark the beginning of an "inner cabinet," a group close to the prime minister that would usher in top-down leadership in place of the consensual system that has given each cabinet member a veto over cabinet decisions.

After initially announcing that he would wait until after taking office to announce his cabinet, Yukio Hatoyama appears to have reverted to the party's transition plan, having indicated his choices for chief cabinet secretary and three senior cabinet posts in recent days. (None of these decisions is final, however; Hatoyama chided the press Friday for being hasty in reporting Hirofumi Hirano's appointment as final when the DPJ still needs to consult with its coalition partners. Hatoyama did say Saturday that final decisions will be made Monday.)

Nevertheless, it appears as if the idea of an inner cabinet will be important for understanding the workings of the incoming DPJ-led government. As I suggested yesterday, Hatoyama will not be a presidential prime minister; the executive power will ultimately rest in the hands of a small group that will include Hatoyama but also Katsuya Okada as foreign minister, Hirohisa Fujii as finance minister, and Naoto Kan as head of the national strategy office, serving concurrently as deputy prime minister and head of the DPJ's policy research council. Perhaps this inner cabinet will also include the cabinet members from the PNP and SDPJ.

Hatoyama will, in short, have plenty of help in running the cabinet. I think that this system will be an improvement over top-down leadership model in which decision-making ultimately depends on the prime minister. As both Kan and Okada are both respected among DPJ backbenchers, their involvement should also help guarantee support from the party's legislators.

Of course, the more critical factor in linking the cabinet executive with the legislators who will be expected to vote for the cabinet's legislation will be Ichiro Ozawa. Ozawa and Hatoyama met Saturday and concluded that as secretary-general not only will Ozawa be responsible for election strategy, but he will also be responsible for the DPJ's Diet strategy, Diet strategy being the link between executive and legislative functions. Ozawa will be assigning committee positions and appointing the party's Diet strategy chair. Ozawa appears determined to unify functions in his office that in the LDP have been divided among several officials, consolidating the LDP's many vetoes into one big veto.

As I've previously argued, the question is what Ozawa does with his veto. The media seems to have concluded that personal rule by Ozawa is inevitable, but I think it is an open question. Having Ozawa concentrate the party's various functions (including, critically, financing functions) in the office of the secretary-general could result in a much weaker party relative to the cabinet if Ozawa respects the will of the cabinet and uses his position to keep individual party members down. Acknowledging these concerns, Ozawa made clear that he will respect the will of the prime minister, but it is too early to say: we'll have to see how Ozawa acts once the DPJ takes power. And if Ozawa decides to question the government publicly, an inner cabinet that includes two DPJ heavyweights plus Hatoyama could be better placed to resist Ozawa, even with Fujii, an Ozawa confidante included in the inner cabinet.

If this policymaking system actually emerges once the DPJ takes power after 16 September, the result will be a much more streamlined system than LDP rule, with its numerous veto points and bottlenecks. With Ozawa in control of the party machinery, he should be in position to punish backbenchers for inappropriate contact with bureaucrats and other behavior that undermines the executive. With power concentrated in the hands of a small group of ministers, the cabinet should be able to carry on even if a minister or two gets captured by their ministries.

A report on Shin Hodo 2001 this morning warned that the DPJ's efforts to streamline and centralize the policymaking process — copying the British system of government — could result in what some have called Britain's "elected dictatorship." To bring the point home, the accompanying image was of Iraq in flames, the consequences of the "dictatorial" powers that enabled Tony Blair to join hands with George W. Bush and commit Britain to war in Iraq despite public opposition. Checks on power are important, but given that LDP government has been characterized by a surfeit of informal checks and balances resulting in policy paralysis, an elected dictatorship might not be such a bad thing for the moment.

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