Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Coalition Leaders Line up for Prime Minister on Gasoline Taxes

In case anyone is still thinking that Yasuo Fukuda is up that creek without a paddle, yesterday (March 31), the Secretary-Generals, Policy Research Council Chairmen and Diet Committee Affairs Chairmen of the LDP and New Kōmeitō met with the Chief Cabinet Secretary and confirmed the coalition’s intent to “go into consultations with the Prime Minister’s proposal as the basis”. Bunmei Ibuki is the LDP Secretary-General who initially pointed out to the press that the proposal had not received the formal blessings of the LDP and - possibly knowingly - gave the DPJ a rather contrived excuse to say no to any negotiations before the gasoline tax surcharge expired.

Makoto Koga, the leader of the road tribe and powerful faction leader, also fell in line, stating, “(The Prime Minister’s proposal) must be received with humility. I have my own opinions, but I wish to value of the party uniting and going forward in the same direction.” Not the most enthusiastic of endorsements, butt as Head of Election Strategy Headquarters, a post he won after rejecting the General Council Chair (the least powerful of the LDP Big Three before Mr. Koga made it the Fantastic Four, the others being Secretary-General and Policy Research Council Chairman), he must also have been mindful of the difficulties of fighting the next Lower House election without a cover for resurrecting the unpopular “temporary” surcharge.

For nothing can be worse in political terms for a coalition Diet member who is not a diehard road tribalist than to go into the next general election with the gasoline tax and road development and maintenance plan back in place in their original forms. Even most roadists would appreciate the political cover they will receive from the Fukuda proposal, which actually leaves the door open for them to maintain at least some de facto control over the eventual disbursement of a substantial portion, if not all, of the revenue (which, incidentally, is why pressure from and shared oversight by an engaged opposition is vital). After all, they must have other, less-monied but quite numerous constituencies who will not fully appreciate the concerns of construction firms and their dependents.

Even those who are dead set against transferring a single yen of gasoline tax money to the general budget, let alone returning the money to car owners by giving up a single basis point on the surcharge (something, to be fair to the DPJ, that Mr. Fukuda has not said explicitly that he is willing to do), will think twice before defying the Prime Minister when push comes to shove, when they recall what happened to Lower House LDP Members who voted against Prime Minister Koizumi’s Post Office privatization plans. Lest other LDP members think similar punishment too harsh and side with rebellious forces, Mr. Fukuda, as Prime Minister, retains the nuclear option of dissolving the Lower House and calling a snap election.

It also helps that Mr. Fukuda has the unswerving support of the Machimura faction, the largest and most successful faction in the entire LDP. This large core support helps in a crisis. It is instructive that Toshiki Kaifu, the Prime Minister who resigned instead of making good on his threat to call a snap election, had very little help in this respect, whereas Shinzō Abe, also of the Machimura faction, managed to stay on against the wishes of many coalition members and most of the public and the media after the 2007 Upper House election disaster had validated his dismal approval figures.

In short, Mr. Fukuda has maintained control over his party on this issue until the next Lower House election.

Now, I’ve believed for some time that the road that Mr. Fukuda took was the only viable option for the Prime Minister and the ruling coalition, so I do feel like I’m having the vicarious pleasure of seeing him recapture the proverbial giraffe. But, Will it actually work?, you may ask. Well, if I knew, I would be a rich man, wuoldn’t I, for it all depends on what happens between now and the election, and how Mr. Fukuda plays the game. So with that copout, I lay my virtual pen to rest.

For today, that is; it’s a small giraffe Mr.Fukuda’s caught himself, and even that takes a lot more effort to kill.

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