EDITORIAL: Stadium snafu shows failure of Abe’s strong-arm politics
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s words sounded hollow when he announced his decision July 17 to scrap the much-criticized design of the new National Stadium, the main venue for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Abe said he made the decision after “giving careful attention to the voices of the people.”
“We want to ensure that the sports events will be praised by the people of the world,” he added.
Just one week ago, Abe, speaking in the Diet, rejected the idea of changing the costly design on grounds that construction would not be completed in time for the Olympics if it was altered.
His sudden reversal coincides with the ruling camp’s move to force controversial security legislation through the Lower House, despite growing objections to the package even as Diet deliberations on the bills progressed.
Abe’s about-face seems to be a ploy to stop the slide in public support for his Cabinet by acting like a leader who is willing to respond to the people’s opinion, at least on the stadium issue.
The foolish construction plan would have forced spending of a recklessly large amount of taxpayer money amid an unprecedented fiscal squeeze that is facing the nation.
The blueprint fell far short of the standards for public works projects, which should be supported by detailed explanations and serious consensus-building efforts, as well as a convincing long-term financing plan for the use of the facility after the completion.
“I have decided to take the current plan back to the drawing board and re-examine (the project) from scratch,” Abe told reporters at the prime minister’s office in Tokyo in announcing his inevitable change of policy.
It goes without saying that the Abe administration, the Tokyo metropolitan government, the Olympic organizing committee and other parties involved should now craft a down-to-earth construction plan for the stadium that contributes to promoting grass-roots sports in the future.
They should also fulfill their international responsibility to organize a successful Olympics and Paralympics in 2020.
However, the key question is why this obvious decision had been delayed for so long. Why was the plan kept unchanged until now, despite being so clearly and seriously flawed?
This prolonged delay in tackling the problem points to one of the deep-rooted problems with the nation’s ailing governing system: a fuzziness about who is responsible for what.
Hakubun Shimomura, the sports minister, tried to avoid taking the blame by saying he did not receive related information in a timely manner, while the Japan Sports Council, the operator of the stadium project, said the sports ministry is responsible for making the decision to change the plan.
Yoshiro Mori, the former prime minister and president of the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, who previously called for the construction of a grand stadium even if it cost 300 billion yen or 400 billion yen ($2.4 billion or $3.2 billion), had the effrontery to say on July 17, “I didn’t like the design of the stadium from the beginning. Nobody is responsible (for the fiasco).”
The government’s explanation about the construction plan raised a raft of questions. One was how it intended to finance the project--estimated construction costs have almost doubled from the original budget to 252 billion yen--and cover the running costs after completion. But the government just kept waffling.
After Abe’s announcement of the change of course, Tokyo Governor Yoichi Masuzoe angrily said, “Who will take the responsibility?”
That’s a reasonable question. But it is still unclear who of all the people involved, including the capital’s governor, is ultimately responsible for the project.
According to an Asahi Shimbun report, one Diet member made surprising remarks about the issue.
“Nobody dares to hang a bell to the cat’s neck as the ultimate responsibility (for the project) has to fall on the two prime ministers of Abe and Mori,” the lawmaker was quoted as saying.
People in power get their own way by using their clout. That’s the reality of the Japanese political community that has been highlighted by this stadium snafu. In this domain, it seems, the prime minister and other political heavyweights act like absolute monarchs, and even members of the same party cannot challenge their opinions and decisions.
PUBLIC OPINION CONSTANTLY IGNORED
Made under growing pressure from public opinion, Abe’s decision to change the stadium design also speaks volumes about how his style of politics has ceased to work.
Even as the stadium project went adrift, the Abe administration consistently refused to pay attention to dissenting voices. It has become the norm for responsible policymakers in the government to ignore public opinion. This is a serious problem.
The stadium’s design, chosen through an international competition, has been roundly criticized by architects and civic organizations from the start. Critics have said the design does not blend with the surrounding landscape. They have also argued it will be too gigantic and construction costs could snowball.
There have been many opportunities for the government to reconsider the plan, including the time when the basic design blueprint was approved in May last year. Shimomura pointed out that the design was determined when the Democratic Party of Japan was in power, in what sounded like an attempt to shuffle off responsibility onto the opposition party.
But the Abe administration should do serious soul-searching about the fact that it has missed out on all the opportunities to rethink the plan.
SAME MIND-SET FOR OTHER KEY ISSUES
The Abe administration has shown a troubling tendency to ignore public opinion, avoid its responsibility to explain its actions, and go ahead with policy decisions for the nation’s future that are not based on solid ground.
The stadium issue is not the only example that attests to this tendency of the administration. The same mind-set has also been behind the way the administration has handled the package of security bills and moved to restart offline nuclear reactors, which are issues of grave concern for the public.
During the Diet debate on the security legislation, the prime minister and other members of the Cabinet made many unintelligible remarks while failing to answer people’s doubts and questions.
The administration is forging ahead with plans to bring idle reactors back online without making clear who takes the ultimate responsibility for the safety of the people.
Many Japanese have voiced clear and strong concerns about these two initiatives.
Abe has been trying to push them through by using the ruling camp’s majority in the Diet while paying little respect to dissenting opinions even though these initiatives have a direct bearing on people’s lives and safety.
Since those in power pay no heed to what the people say, it is not surprising that scholars and citizens are becoming increasingly vocal in expressing objections to his policies.
The administration should not alienate people from politics any further.
In explaining the reasons for his sudden decision to rethink the stadium plan, Abe said, “Each Japanese and each athlete has to play a leading role.”
If that is how he truly feels, Abe should realize that each individual member of the public should play a leading role in making decisions on all policy issues, including security and nuclear power issues.
The stadium debacle offers a wide range of important lessons for the administration to glean.