Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Diet Takes a Two-Day Winter Break and I Take a Brief Look Ahead

an update of sorts, on this

The 128-day 168th Diet session, extraordinary in more ways than one, closed today, after passing 26 laws, 14 of them submitted by the Cabinet, 12 by Diet members. (For more details, dig here). The big trophies were: the new stripped-down anti-terror act, campaign financing reform legislation, and the compensation bill for blood-transfusion-related hepatitis C victims. In case anybody wondered, the Cabinet batted 14 for 19, including four leftovers from the 163rd and 16th sessions. If this were the Japan Series, the Cabinet would be a serious MVP candidate*. This being the political game, let’s just say that the two sides showed that they can work together, with results somewhere between the best and worst case game-theory scenarios.

The Fukuda administration emerges battered and bruised, though not down and out. From Mr. Fukuda’s perspective, the main blows were more or less self-inflicted, more with regard to the hepatitis C and pension record misspeaks, less in the case of the Defense Ministry corruption scandal(s). I have for some time believed that the refueling controversy ceased to be of much importance to the Japanese public; nothing has happened to make me change my mind. Although the January Yomiuri polls have not come out yet, I assume that Mr. Fukuda’s popularity has edged back slightly there as well, and overall currently hovers in the mid-thirties ~ mid-forties range, depending on the poll that you consult. It will continue to inch forward ever so painfully as long as the administration keeps looking reasonably competent and the coalition can avoid serious mishaps, like the criminal indictment of a Cabinet Minister. I think that the public pension accounting scandal has run its course as far as public perception is concerned; unless there are further major revelations, the public will wait to see the quality of the repair work before it passes final judgment. On the other hand, I don’t see anything on the horizon for the duration of his term that will enable him to ramp up his popularity like Prime Minister Koizumi did for himself in 2005, nor does he have the ruthlessness and the flair to seize such a counterintuitive moment if it did come his way.

On the other side, I am mildly surprised by the good numbers that the DPJ has been getting in the polls. In fact, it’s outpolling the LDP. That, after the internal disarray, as well as all the mess that Ichirō Ozawa has been creating, and leaving poor Yukio Hatoyama wiping after him. In fact, not yet sated with walking out on the anti-terror bill revote, he has the next no-show lined up already, deciding to fly off to Davos instead of fronting his party at the questioning session following the Prime Minister’s policy speech at the beginning of the 169th Diet session, set to commence on Friday. Some people are Teflon politicians, the mud never sticks; Mr. Ozawa just swallows it like No Face and looks as strong as ever, if not more so. Mr. Ozawa is telling us, get used to it - and we are**. We are getting used to this mad scientist in our midst, the nutty, rich uncle; and it’s a plus for him. Going back to the numbers, I also suspect that some of the positives for the DPJ is a reflection of the public dissatisfaction with the LDP and, more broadly, the coalition.

The consequence of all this is that Mr. Fukuda is not going to call a snap election any time soon. It helps him that the public doesn’t want it either. If he really tanks, the coalition will force him to resign - they will shoot him if he tries to dissolve the Lower House - and turn to someone else in their fold to see if he can turn things around. Right now, Mr. Asō is the most likely candidate***.

The problem with this situation for Mr. Fukuda is that, without the snap election threat in his hands, the DPJ has that much more room to push without fear of negative political repercussions. That in turn will make Mr. Fukuda look weaker and less decisive. I have no way of quantifying this effect, or even confirming its effects, but I’ll let you know when I think that I see it.

I am running out of time. Briefly, before I go back to work and get smashed, more or less in that order:

The big crunch comes with the special tax measures that expire on April 1, and most acutely in the case of the temporary surcharge on the gasoline tax. I explored the technical reasons for this here, which I think was prescient in a clever, minor-key way****. But the real problem is more than substantial, since a multitrillion-yen chunk of revenue is at stake, with internal dissent rampant in both political camps and interest groups raising hell all over the political landscape. I can only guess what will happen. Let’s leave it at that, since the rest of my thoughts are of little meaning, even to me.

Looking somewhat more to the future, here are two other milestones: Two laws that are a crucial part of the quid pro quo in Japan’s alliance with the U.S. are set to expire next year, the new Anti-Terrorism Act (the legislation authorizing the resumption of refueling operations in the Indian Ocean) on January 11*****, and the Act Concerning the Implementation of Humanitarian Relief and Reconstruction Works Activities and Safety Ensuring Activities (this one is for Iraq) on August 1. Therefore, if the Emperor with the advice and consent of the Cabinet dissolves the Lower House before January 10, extension bills for both acts will die in the Upper House when the time comes, unless the coalition retains a supermajority. A later but pre-July 31 dissolution will most likely doom the Iraq bill while sparing the anti-terror bill. But so much can happen between now and then. For example, Democrat in the White House will ease any pain on dropping the ball on Iraq, but not on Afghanistan******. On the other hand, the DPJ and the ruling coalition may come to terms with a permanent bill, though I’m betting against it, since anything that is acceptable to Mr. Ozawa will be anathema to the LDP right and vice versa. Still, anything can happen between now and then, and this is no exception. Whatever happens, you have been forewarned.

Finally, I have to confess that I have not touched on any of the big questions with regard to statecraft. Unfortunately, I have no idea how we are going to deal with, in no particular order, the public deficit, the long-term health of the public healthcare and pension system, aging demographics, transition to a post-industrial energy profile, and climate change. (I’m sure that I’ve missed something, and more.) I am hoping with fingers crossed that one side or the other will, against all expectations, come up with a credible program to address them properly and convince me that they’ll do something about it.

* Speaking of Japanese baseball, I was right, the Celtics are in a slump. They’ve been tiring in the second half. Now, the first half isn’t looking too good either. They have to rest Garnett, and probably Ray Allen, even at the cost of losing some games. Which means it’s a good time to be a Patriots fan as well, only I started out as a Montreal Alouettes fan, and had lost interest in football by the time they folded in 1981. Fact: The current Montreal Alouettes were set up in Baltimore, U.S.A., then moved to Montreal and assumed the old Alouettes name. It claims the records of the old Alouettes as its own but does not recognize the Baltimore records. It’s a case of up yours, vous Americains, I suppose. In any case, this all somehow reminds me of the Imperial succession debate. Just sayin’.

** This is somewhat reminiscent of Tokyo Governor Shintarō Ishihara bullying the Tokyo government press club into submission. Hey, I’ve got an idea. Let’s call these people: theButté Media.

*** I mention this here only because it gives me a chance to say this: I know that if it happens, those so-called experts over there will resurrect their alarm over yet another “hyper-nationalist” resurgence, only to be deeply embarrassed again to find that little of consequence will have changed. Broken clocks that nevertheless never manage to... There are important, fundamental questions that need to be addressed here. I am working on it. Stay tuned.

**** I say “minor-key” because I gave some more thought to the question and soon realized that the potential legal flaw can be patched if they draft the extension clause in a way that anticipates a possible (but not definite) hiatus. However, there is no way to get around the confusion at the pump in the likelihood of a switch and switchback in price and tax accounting.

***** To be precise, it expires at 0:00 AM, like a pumpkin.

****** I am, of course, ignoring Ron Paul here.


Anonymous said...

I greatly appreciate the reference to 顔なし. Almost choked on my tea.

Jun Okumura said...

You agree that Mr. Ozawa has the look and feel of a Hayao Miyazaki monster - menacing, yet cuddly?