Monday, September 29, 2008

Prime Minister Aso’s Inaugural Speech Takes It to the Opposition

In a major strategic shift from the consensus-seeking Fukuda administration, Prime Minister decided to go on the attack in his inaugural policy statement address to the Diet. In an unprecedented move, Mr. Aso accused the DPJ of putting the political game ahead of the public interest and challenged them to respond to the following five points:
1. Is the DPJ ready to establish rules for consensus-building, or will it dare to betray its own beliefs by rejecting the decision-making process in the Diet and once again putting the livelihood of the people second?

2. I ask the DPJ, are you willing to agree to establishing a consumer [protection] agency or not? If not, are you willing to engage in a discussion quickly to reach an agreement? Thus do I pose the question.

3. The UN is currently swayed by the policies of a small number of countries and otherwise is not in a condition in which we can entrust the fate of our nation to it. So, the Japan-U.S. alliance and the UN: Which comes first and which comes after? The DPJ has the responsibility to make that clear to the people of Japan and the world. I would like to hear it, together with the reasoning behind it.

4. Other nations are about to increase their engagement in Afghanistan despite invaluable sacrifices [read fatal casualties]. At this point, Japan, as a member of the international society, does not have the option of washing its hands of operations there. Does the DPJ think that it’s alright to do so regardless? I seek their opinion.

5. On top of the economic downturn, financial uncertainties are spreading from the United States. Is it not our political responsibility to the people of Japan to enact the supplementary budget that substantiates the Emergency Comprehensive Measures and the legislative bills that compensates local governments for the lost road construction and maintenance funds?
Looking at these points—I’ve only slightly paraphrased them—1 and 4 in particular, I don’t think Mr. Aso is willing to take a yes for an answer. In fact, the media—and I agree—see the speech as an attempt to challenge the DPJ and push his own stimulus agenda, then take the resultant momentum into the snap election. Mr. Aso himself advocates a three-year recovery process that apparently tables for the time being the tight-fisted fiscal rebalancing program from the Koizumi era.

A couple of points that will not be mentioned in the media reports. First, the address arranges crisp, forceful sentences into a concise, rhythmical package. There is a nice touch of the familiar, even a hint of the vernacular; this is not the usual accretion of bureaucratese. Let me put it this way: this appears to be the easiest Prime Minister’s address to translate that I’ve ever seen.

Second, the speech focuses on the DPJ, totally ignoring the rest of the opposition. It also personalizes the coalition’s position by the perception of an “Aso” shift in economic policy. The LDP hopes that this sets the stage for an Aso-Ozawa showdown, one that the ruling coalition has a much better chance of winning than a battle between the LDP-New Komeito coalition and the opposition.

One speech does not an election victory make. But at least this one puts the ball in the ball in Ichiro Ozawa’s court, something of a feat for an inaugural address.

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