Yoshihiko Noda was appointed to the post of prime minister by Japan's Parliament earlier today in a move that could spell either a fundamental shift in Japanese policy or more of the same for the world's third-largest economy, depending on what experts you listen to.
Noda, the finance minister of the previous government, won his country's top political post by outmaneuvering his rivals for leadership of the Liberal Democratic Party, Japan's ruling and longtime dominant political party, making his appointment by Parliament a mere formality. He is expected to be confirmed by the Emperor by the end of the week.
Noda is a noted fiscal conservative in a country that has run a relatively high budget deficit since its economic bubble burst in the 1990s and the country entered a lengthy period of economic stagnation. Japan's national debt stands at over 200 percent of its GDP, and this was the picture before the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami saddled the country with a reconstruction bill estimated to cost almost $170 billion over the next five years.
Noda is on the record for favoring tax increases as one tool for taming Japan's burgeoning debt, one of the country's few major politicians who has taken such a stance in public. Noda is also a defense hawk who has written with concern over the growth of China's military might vis-a-vis Japan, and his elevation has been met with chilliness in Beijing. His distinctly conservative outlook on fiscal and defense issues points toward a shift in Japanese policy.
However, it must also be said that Noda is the sixth Japanese prime minister to take power in five years, and his predecessor Naoto Kan fell as a result of a backlash of popular discontent in the wake of the March disasters. Kan's fall and Noda's elevation in an intra-party succession struggle is hardly indicative of a broad popular mandate.
Noda could just prove to be another placeholder prime minister for the LDP, as no Japanese prime minister has managed any longevity since Junichiro Koizumi, the only Japanese prime minister to serve in office for longer than five years since the early 1970s. The fallen Naoto Kan is the only post-Koizumi prime minister to hang on for more than a single year.
Noda must also face the fact the Japanese Upper House of Parliament, the House of Councillors, is controlled by opposition parties. While the government is chosen by the LDP-controlled House of Representatives, no legislation can pass without the approval of both houses of Parliament. Noda's opposition therefore exercises an effective veto on whatever controversial changes in Japanese fiscal and defense policy he might wish to make.