Thursday, March 06, 2008

Back to Work, Asahi Says - Wakeup Call for DPJ

Asahi* knocks the DPJ for “clinging to minority [opposition] tactics” and boycotting the Diet, and urges it to get back to work and attack the government on the gasoline taxes and road construction expenditures in the Upper House - where the opposition holds the majority - and put the DPJ’s own program up against it. There’s certainly something wrong with the game plan for the DPJ when even Asahi doesn’t have its back. You don’t even need to hear what Yomiuri is thinking.

Of course Asahi being the Asahi, its editorial excoriates the ruling coalition for the come-for-the-sessions-anyway stunt that it has been pulling to show up the opposition (minus the fellow-traveler Communists). Yomiuri takes the opportunity to hit the DPJ hard for “using the [BOJ Governor] appointment for political maneuvering”. A typical day at the editorial office.

The public benefits of progress towards a more sensible road construction program that could come out of a dialogue in the Upper House are pretty obvious. Such an outcome would also enhance the DPJ’S credentials as a serious alternative to the LDP and not just a place for the voters to register their dissatisfaction with the status quo. And it’s not as if the DPJ have substantive reservations for the LDP nominees for the BOJ appointments or viable alternatives of their own. But the people in the DPJ are too smart to need such reminders. Why then, have they reverted to the “perpetual opposition” tactics of the old Socialist Party?

Remember that the DPJ only managed to put forth a program of its own near the end of deliberations in the Lower House. The long-awaited DPJ plan turned out to be nothing more than putting the official imprimatur on its three-point proposal to terminate the surcharge, put the remaining revenue in the general budget and fully compensate the local governments for their share of the revenue loss. How the revenue loss would be absorbed remained unclear. The DPJ could have put all this forward much earlier and injected into the Lower House talks. Who knows, the two sides could have come to an agreement there, or at least have had something for the public and the media to mull over. That way, they could have informed the public debate before reaching a conclusion at the end of the fiscal year in line with the House Chairmen’s consent decree. Instead, it could only make up its mind when the clock threatened to run out on it.

Recall that a substantial number of DPJ Diet members signed on to a petition circulated by one of its own Lower House members to retain the gasoline tax surcharge. Given the overwhelming support among local elected officials for a surcharge extension - during the press conference after the Sentaku inaugurals, Matsuzawa, Kangawa Governor pleaded for a three-year extension during which the Diet could work out a long-term solution - it is reasonable to assume that there are many other DPJ Diet members who would sign on if they dared to. This internal dissent means that it is much easier to attack the government program - itself quite vulnerable, with discontents in the LDP itself, including former Prime Minister Koizumi - than to promote an agenda of its own. It also encourages the leadership to pour its energy into procedure rather than substance.

We saw similar behavior by the DPJ during the previous Diet session in the fight over the JMSDF refueling operations in the Indian Ocean. The DPJ leadership attacked the government’s extension plans but could not come up with an alternative course of action. Instead, it kept stalling and stalling, though it finally produced a legislative blueprint for ground-based operations in Afghanistan that most everybody agreed was unworkable.

What is required here is leadership, the kind of leadership that can say, my way or the highway, and enforce it. Mr. Koizumi did it over the privatization of the national Post Office and won the 2005 Lower House election in a historical landslide. Ichirō Ozawa is also bold enough, willful enough to defy his colleagues. But he needs more than courage and self-regard for this; to do it, a party leader must issue a direct appeal to the electorate. Unfortunately for the DPJ, Mr. Ozawa so far is avoiding public engagment like the plague; at least in part because of this, he is even less popular than the floundering Fukuda administration.

If the DPJ is serious about winning, it must do more than wait for the LDP to lose. A stroke of luck for the Fukuda administration - the family of the two fishermen lost in the Aegis destroyer collision turned out to be staunch suipporters of junior coalition partner New Kōmeitō - has taken most of the air out of the attack over the most recent Defense Ministry mishap. Stonewalling the BOJ appointments will likely wind up backfiring on the DPJ.

However, gasoline tax revenues and road construction expenditures are an issue that resonates strongly with voters. Huge political gains will accrue to the party that comes up with a solution that enables local governments to sign on while keeping public opinion and the mainstream media on its side. For that, a timeout with a road map increasingly looks like the most viable framework for a solution. The LDP, for whom compromise is second nature, is likely heading in that direction. To win, the DPJ must beat them to it, or find an even better alternative.

The Asahi editorial is the wakeup call.

* This will be the link after the March 7 editorial appears online. The English translation will be available here later as a March 7 post.

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