Monday, March 31, 2008

What Does It Mean When the Media Urges the DPJ to Come to Terms on Gasoline Taxes?

Over the weekend, all the major dailies wanted the DPJ to take up the latest version of the Fukuda offer. Look at the op-ed titles:

March 28
Japanese The Prime Minister’s Decision - It’s [DPJ] President Ozawa’s Turn to Respond (首相の決断―小沢代表が応える番だ)
English Debate over Road Taxes
March 29
Japanese To the DPJ - Make the “Fukuda Proposal” Bear Fruit 民主党へ―「福田提案」を実らせよ
English Proposal on Road Taxes

March 29
JapaneseDPJ - Return to the Starting Point of Reform 民主党 改革とは何かの原点に戻れ
March 30
March Putting Road Money into General funds - Don’t Lose a Great Opportunity for Budget Reform 道路財源一般化 予算改革の絶好機を逃すな

March 28
JapaneseThe Prime Minister’s Amended Proposal - The DPJ Must Also Make a Bold Compromise- 首相修正提案 民主党も大胆に妥協せよ(3月28日付・読売社説)
English DPJ must make concessions in tax row
March 29
Japanese Gasoline Taxes - Strive Till the End to Avoid Confusion ガソリン税 最後まで混乱回避に努めよ

March 28 The Prime Minister’s Emergency Press Briefing - The DPJ Must Accept Policy Dialogue 首相緊急会見 民主は政策協議に応じよ
March 29 Budget Passes - Avoid Confusion with Regard to on Gasoline Too 予算成立 ガソリンでも混乱避けよ

But, you may ask, Does anyone read the editorials?. Well, I did this time, if only to write this post. But that does not mean that editorials are meaningless. In a land where newspaper journalists stay in one major print-and-TV media family for their entire working lives (barring corporate catastrophes, one of which created the perfect marriage between Sankei and Yoshihisa Komori), the editorial writers are merely a group of the senior, lifetime in-house reporters who have passed the first important up-out-out-to-the-boondocks test in their career paths. What this means is that the views expressed in the editorials are mirrored in the reporting of the actual news, since both sides are the manifestations of the singular, unchanging corporate anima, with no WSJ-like divide between the two. Thus, the ideological and policy preferences of any newspaper (and choice of professional baseball teams in the case of Yomiuri) are incessantly drummed into the minds of its faithful subscribers, channeling, honing and amplifying their responses to issues that may not otherwise invoke visceral reactions.

I may be exaggerating a little, and surely speculating a lot. I cannot read the minds of my fellow Japanese, and do not know firsthand their newspaper reading habits beyond those of my immediate family. Moreover, I do not watch much Japanese TV, so I am relatively ignorant of the tone and content of what appear to be the ideologically less constricting TV news programs and the more popular general-purpose wide shows. Still, when all the major dailies from the Asahi on the left to the Sankei on the right agree on an acutely divisive political issue, that is bound to influence the public’s take on the relative merits of the political position that the two sides have chosen. It surely must also, in this instance, help the Prime Minister keep the road-tribe and other dissidents within the coalition in line as far as his proposal to consign the gasoline tax money to the general-purpose funds is concerned.

The DPJ deserves huge credit for making full use of the opposition’s Upper House majority and the public’s support, thereby registering a major political victory and potentially substantial change in the future use of the gasoline tax revenue. Remember, a Prime Minister no less than Junichirō Koizumi earned a big fat incomplete on this one. However, by refusing to take what was offered and continue what could be very public negotiations for the remainder of its demands (elimination of the surcharge rate, and other reforms), it threw away the political benefits of its achievements and instead exposed its actions to accusations of playing politics with the public’s wellbeing. Yet again, the DPJ has managed to display its dismaying knack for adding up to less than the sum of its parts.

Prime Minister Fukuda, to be sure, is not out of the woods. The surcharge is unpopular with the general public and should remain so, yet he has no choice but to have the coalition exercise its Lower House supermajority to pass the surcharge extension as is come April 29. Moreover, there is a widely held sense of waste, if not outright corruption, in the use of the road money, but he will face fierce opposition from powerful vested interests, including within his own party, that seek to maintain the status quo. However, if he manages to make a show of his resolve with regard to the revote while maintaining the doors open to negotiations with the opposition; and, through autumn and beyond, enforce his proposal on the coalition and actuate visible changes in the size, content and execution of the road plan even as the DPJ remains outside the actual reform process, then he should be able to maintain and enhance public support for his administration, even in the face of continued displeasure of the public with regard to expensive automobile fuels.

This will all be idle speculation if the economy takes a visible turn for the worse. Then, even the DPJ’s latest justification for dropping the gasoline taxes - it’s an anti-recession measure - will gain credibility. But that is a chance that Mr. Fukuda will take.

* FYI the Asahi takes the judgmental elements out of the editorial titles when it translates them. It apparently does this to all its editorial translations, not just these two.

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