Wednesday, October 01, 2008

How Far Can Prime Minister Aso Push Back the Lower House Election? Depends.

According to news reports as well as Prime Minister Aso’s inaugural September 29 policy speech to the Diet, the top three items on his policy agenda are: shoring up a sagging economy, establishing a consumer protection agency, and extending counter-terrorism refueling operations in the Indian Ocean. He has chosen a personalized Aso vs. Ozawa/LDP vs. DPJ, confrontational approach in sharp contrast to Mr. Fukuda, his predecessor. The already gloomy economic outlook has taken a turn for the worse with the explosion of the U.S. financial crisis. An economic package and a consumer protection agency are in principle not anathema to the DPJ. These developments raise the possibility that Mr. will delay the snap election to expand the economic package, (somewhat less likely) to pass legislation to establish the consumer protection agency, and (even less likely) to use the supermajority override to renew legislative authorization for the refueling operations.

The first item is for the time being covered by the 11.7/1.8 trillion yen fiscal package, with the bill for income tax relief and other legislative items to arrive after the Lower House election. The requisite budgetary bill becomes effective by a simple majority in the Lower House after a maximum 30-day wait in the Upper House. The DPJ is reportedly leaning toward a quick Upper House vote in exchange for a few days’ deliberations in the high-profile Budgetary Committees in the two Houses, where they can turn the klieglights on to the LDP’s multiple malfeasances over and beyond the stimulus package. The worsening economic circumstances have forced the LDP to give up the notion of avoiding this unwanted media attention by skipping directly to the election. Mr. Aso’s flatly-stated apologetic foreword on the swiftly disposed-of MAFF Minister Nakayama’s maledictions and the untimely administrative makeover is an indication that he intends to weather any criticism by apologizing and moving on, dismissing any attempt on the part of the opposition to further linger his administration as pure politics. Likewise in the address itself, Mr. Aso further apologized for the bureaucracy’s yet more public pension capers as well as the delinquent inspection of tainted rice that led to their intrusion into the human food chain. Long on apologies, short on substance, the two sides will it no doubt do their best to fill the public narrative with its own tropes and memes. But that’s where Mr. Aso intent appears to lie. But this willingness to take the heat has raised another possibility. Mr. Aso and Chief Cabinet Secretary Hosoda among others have been openly talking about an additional stimulus package. But if you are going to get slagged anyway, why not go for the whole hog? Thus, the most recent media reports have Mr. Aso and the party leadership looking at the possibility of passing a second package during this Diet session. Whence they cannot help but think, more electoral bang for more bucks.

A second package would significantly push back the timing of a Lower House election. Here, it gets interesting. More time on you hands means more time to take care of other things. The notion of a consumer protection agency has bipartisan support; the devil is in the not inconsiderable details. There may be room for compromise, or at least, from Mr. Aso’s point of view, show up the DPJ as diddling with the consumers’ interests for political gain. Who knows, the ruling coalition might even be able to avail itself of the Lower House supermajority to pass the necessary legislative bill. What happens here will depend very much on the way the issue, including the broader issue of bureaucratic incompetence and the LDP’s responsibility for that plays in public opinion.

The refueling operations are trickier, and harder to read. Public opinion polls show a majority/plurality (depending on who does the asking and when) opposing their continuation. However, no Japanese troops are dying on the Indian Ocean; this is not a hot-button issue for the Japanese public. My guess is that if Mr. Aso calls on the ruling coalition to override the opposition on the consumer protection agency, he will also insist that it exercise its Lower House prerogative on the refueling operations as well. First, this is in keeping with his confrontational approach and conducive to a decisive image. Second, there are undeniable diplomatic benefits that accrue to Japan. Imagine going into a snap election with (the increasingly likely) President Obama’s words of praise at your back for this: safe work in a dangerous place.

All this, of course, pushes the end of the current Diet session back as far as late December; the Lower House election would be held in early January, the limits of New Komeito’s patience. This is still not likely, but at least possible, and is, in my mind, Mr. Aso’s now best-case scenario.

Having said that, I’ll be looking for an opportunity to consider how the DPJ is going to play this. In short, I think it’s this: Look, those guys had 50-some years to do something about this mess; how often do they think they can fool you and me with yet another string of apologies and promises to do better.* And by the way, where’s the rest of the beef? That’s all for now.

Writing this reminds me of the old saying Eri wo tadasu, or straighten our collars, as an expression of remorse and the will to do better; and a political cartoon that had a politician (I think it was a Prime Minister; MTC probably remembers) stating this phrase—in a suit without a collar.

No comments: