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 AOYAMA VIEW

ELECTIONS, ELECTIONS - FINLAND, JAPAN, AROUND THE WORLD
The result of Finland parliament election last Sunday is probably the focus of interest for many FCCJ members this week. As expected, the government parties Conservatives and Social Democrats lost a big number of seats which all went to Center Party, which ended up clearly No.1 now in our Eduskunta. Meanwhile, the Finns party kept its number of seats, so it is now the No.2 and clearly wants not be left out again when minister seats are being dealt out in the next government.

Center Party will return to government after 4 years in opposition and its leader Mr. Juha Sipila will be the new PM, who will negotiate with others for a coalition of his liking. It is likely that Center and Finns will make the core of the new minister line up and the crucial question is whether they will take Conservatives or Social Democrats as "the third wheel" to make up the necessary numbers for majority. The "horse trading" that always follows elections based in the multiparty system usually takes 2-3 weeks as compromises are being sought to agree on a common agenda. What is clear this time is that painful decisions on reforms and budget cuts, which the previous governments failed to agree upon, need to be taken this time. In his winner speech, the new likely Prime Minister already called for "patriotic spirit" from all to accept the financial reality facing Finland.

In comparison to the outgoing PM, the young Conservative Mr. Alex Stubb, an Oxford educated internationalist from Helsinki, the new PM cuts a rather different profile. An electric engineer from northern Oulu area and a self-made millionaire with investments in the Nokia-focused IT industry, he has no previous experience as minister or dealing with EU leaders and officials, who make an essential part of decision making in Europe these days. With Europe drifting from crisis to another - finance, security, immigration, Greece, Ukraine, Russia etc - it will be quite a challenge for Mr.Sipila to jump into that new world. It does not help if rumors of poor English language ability prove true.

The inclusion of anti-EU and anti-immigration Finns party in the government will certainly lift eyebrows in Brussels, too. So far, only Greece and Belgium have had such parties included in their governments and neither one of these two countries is known for political stability. As Finns' chairman, the gargantuan size Mr.Timo Soini, has been for long speaking against extending any helping funds to Greece, it would be interesting to see him as Finance Minister attending the very EU meetings where that question and many other finance matters are being decided.

There's some teachings for us here from Finland results. First of all, the 70% voting rate even if many said there was little attraction to vote as the result seemed to be so clear in advance. Secondly, while the number of female MP's is a bit down from earlier, it's still 83 out of 200 or respectable 41%, while the number of over 65 year olds (men and women) is just 15 (7%). In fact, there is now almost as many below 30 year olds (12) and double as many below 35 years (34) as old people. Also, first time for Finland, there is a good number of MP's with immigration background, from Turkey, Afghanistan etc. Bet you it takes a long time before we get to anything like this in Japan. Here over 65 year olds must be in the majority while below 30 year olds don't bother even to vote and reaching 70% voptimg rate for all is far off.

Any impact from the changes in Finland’s ruling coalition on EU policies will be limited in comparison to wide spread concerns what will come out of the British elections that take place next month with their "first through the gate" system. While the Finnish result was well known in advance, the race between UK's Conservatives and Labor seem to go right to the wire. Moreover, the stakes for whole Europe are much bigger as PM Cameron has promised to hold a referendum on whether UK, with population and economy ten times size of Finland, will remain in EU if his party wins. While Mr. Cameron has said he is personally for staying in EU, he has a powerful back bench in his own party against it and a new vigorous opposition party, who aggressively demands for "UK independence", ie. separation from Europe. As London is one of the world's leading financial centers, this outset is creating instability not just in EU politics, but in global financial markets. It also seems to me and many others, that whatever Mr. Cameron says, his "body language" - for instance total absence from crucial EU meetings dealing with Greece, Ukraine and Russia - seem to indicate "Brexit" is the likely outcome should Conservatives remain in charge after May. In contrast, if Labor comes out winner, Britain will stay in EU, but then, it is rumored, some of the world's biggest banks would opt out to leave London.

It is an ironic twist of the British election system, that Scotland, who was close to declare independence from "mother" England last year, could become the "kingmaker", who decides which way Britain will go. Ever since 300 years ago it joined Britain, Scotland has had a good number of seats in the British Parliament and today they all belong to the Scottish Independence Party. Counting that they will remain so after May as well, the independent minded Scots, who wish to stay in EU, could give their support to Labor to reach sufficient numbers for majority - or to Conservatives if the party would promise back out from its exit plans.

Across the Pacific from here, the campaigning has already started for US President elections even if the actual vote will be held only 1,5 years from now. It has always escaped me why US system puts so big emphasis on such early pre-selection of candidates that, in combination with just 4 year presidential rule, the President's "normal" ruling time becomes extremely short. As the entire federal government down to low level officials and ambassadors around the world will be changed together with the President in USA and it surely takes a year for the new teams to settle in, it gives President only one year for actual policy implementation before he has to start campaigning for the next election. Or, in case he is unable to run for another term like Mr.Obama this time, he will turn into a lame duck as all interest already now will focus on who will succeed him. All this looks highly ineffective, something you would not expect from Americans, who always emphasize effectiveness. Moreover, the ability of US President to truly set any policies is limited by the Congress, who holds the key for all law making. During Obama time, the Republican controlled Congress has been hell bent to deny and destroy any new initiatives from the President, so probably it should not matter that much who will be the next president, but which party and which faction he belongs. Sounds almost like Japan pre-Abe. Yet, like many others, I cannot help being intrigued whether the 2016 election will turn into a fight between two family dynasties, the Clintons and the Bushes.

The good news for Japan from USA, is that Congress seem to have decided to allow President his long coveted "fast track authority" for concluding the Trans Pacific trade deal, which makes a crucial part of Obama's "Asian pivot" policy. Without this, no trade partner and not just Japan, would be in right mind to sign any agreement with USA only to see it torn apart or delayed for years by bickering senators trying to twist it to suit their own voters. Now with the fast track in sight and added urgency from the approaching Abe visit to Washington end this month, the talks have suddenly gained speed again. In fact, it looks like almost all differences have been already smoothed out and the 11 nation multinational deal is now hanging on just two US-Japan issues, namely how much rice US can sell to Japan market without the high tariff and how quickly US will abolish its import tariff for car parts. Put in exact figures we are talking about 50-200,000 tons and 2,5%, such small things that it seems unfathomable they could long hold back a deal that covers 40% of the global economy. Yet, stranger things have happened in world politics.

Not to be outdone in number of elections, Japan is this month holding no less than 600 of them on regional level for local assemblies, mayors and governors in prefectures, towns and villages. Earlier, the number was as high as 3000 and this massive bout of democracy was performed all on same day, but now it's been divided into two waves, one two weeks ago and another one week from now. It was less impressive that the voting rate in the first wave turned below 50%, even if this was nothing new. While the issues were/are all local, they were/are not without impact on national level. Standing out were two governor elections, namely Oita and Hokkaido, where the opposition had managed to set up candidates that were questioning the national policy for restarting nuclear power plants in their constituencies. Moreover, as the government alliance had lost two earlier governor elections in Shiga and Okinawa, it was important for Prime Minister's credibility to win these two tests. Happily that happened, yet these wins and others were hardly a confirmation for Abenomics and all government policies as LDP claimed. Looking at results, it more reflected weakness of the opposition and apathy among voters that there were no real alternatives on offer.

The anti-nuclear movement is not apathetic, however, but fighting back. In its latest move the anti-nuclear campaigners got a local judge agree with a private injunction against restarting two reactors in Fukui prefecture, that had been already cleared by NRA to meet the new safety standards for restarts as well as accepted by the local communities. In other words, the judge put himself in position to know things better than the technical experts and give preference to the complainants' concerns over the wider community's opinion. Naturally, such big political win insprired the anti-nuclear activists further to think that ALL restart plans, accepted or not accepted, could be now challenged in local courts around the country. It is a pity if Japan will change from democratic rule based harmonic society to a private citizen centered society ruled by court libels and whims of individual judges. In fact, it was known in advance that this particular judge had shown anti-nuclear preference earlier and the power company had unsuccessfully sought for another judge to be put in charge of the case. The case will move now to a higher court, where it can be turned around, but the first ever anti-nuclear court verdict certainly caused shock waves throughout the power sector and government officials.

While Finland might excel in young people's political activity, the old people in Japan are equally active in many areas. Anti-nuclear movement is just one of them. Few examples, however, go beyond the incredible sports performance of the 104 year old lady, who made a time record for 100 year olds in 1500 meters swimming. Guess most of us did not know that there is such a record category nor even can swim such distance ourselves. Yet here we are with a "genki" old lady completing it in about 1,5 hours, if I recall right. What makes the story even more impressive is that she only took up swimming at the age of 80 !

Another recent story of "genki" old ladies from a slightly different angle, told about a 61 year old, who decided to start a career in the pornographic film industry. "I still feel young and active and wish to try something I never did before", was her motivation. Apart from her own spirit of adventure, think this story tells a lot about the width of offerings in Japan's AV industry, allegedly the biggest in the world. There also seem to be a wide variety of tastes among its customers.

Wasn't it that what we need is variety in the society?

Timo Varhama  
Tokyo April 22, 2015   


Previous Columns

30 March 2015
Sakura: beautiful, but just for a short, fleeting moment

16 March 2015
Better late than never - Japan moves slowly

2 March 2015
Three struck out, three more in doubt - Abe's ministers under attack again

19 February 2015
Spring, Sibelius, Chocolate, Budget and Big, Bad Putin

5 February 2015
Reform Work Starts - Energy, Farming and Food on Wish List

26 January 2015
Terror strikes, plenty work, sad memories wait

15 January 2015
Watching AKB, Eating Mochi, Spending JPY 96 Trillion - Japan Off to Better 2015 After So-So 2014



About the Columnist

The columnist is a Japan veteran among Finnish business, our Chamber ex-president and today Member of the Board of Trustees.
After running a major Finnish industry company's Japan business for over 20 years, he is now Senior Associate in a strategic consulting company.

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