Sunday, November 15, 2009

How They are Doing: The Odd Couple

Rarely does a week go by in the two month old Hatoyama administration without news of yet another outrageous Ozawa incursion on Hatoyama territory. The most spectacular and embarrassing example has been the crackdown on Government Revitalization Minister Yoshito Sengoku and Yukio Edano, the head of Sengoku’s team of parliamentary examiners tasked to squeeze a minimum of 3 trillion yen out of the 95 trillion yen FY2010 budget request submitted by the ministries and agencies as well as the pile of money—buried treasures?—already stashed in their public and private affiliates. Specifically, less than a week after the appointment of 32 examiners, Ozawa showed Sengoku and Edano and by extension the entire Hatoyama administration who was boss, forcing them to drop first-term members from the team; Sengoku/Edano eventually wound up with only 7 Diet members leading a team of 56 private sector experts to comb over the budget requests (closely aided by budget cutters from the Ministry of Finance). Also highly visible has been talk of Ozawa’s support for Diet member sponsored legislation for the extraordinary Diet session in direct contravention of his own ban on freebooting. (Most legislative bills are submitted by the Cabinet, although this is not what the framers of the Japanese Constitution envisaged.)

Such talk actually highlights Ozawa’s religious observance of his division of power. First, regarding the crackdown on the Task Force: Ozawa had installed an around-the-clock program for rookie Lower House members elected in the 30 August landslide victory. The Government Revitalization Task Force appointments, made without his knowledge, clearly interfered with that regimen; Sengoku and Edano, two Diet members with at best chilly relationships with Ozawa, had invaded the latter’s turf. The Task Force reassembled, Ozawa and his closest associates have maintained total silence on its actual work there. Second, talk of Ozawa’s contravention of his (constitutionally sketchy) ban on DPJ Diet member sponsored legislative bills appears to be mostly talk, and not necessarily coming from Ozawa himself. For the only bill that is likely to survive the ban is aimed at assisting hepatitis victims suffering as the result of government malfeasance—a bipartisan undertaking that dates back to the LDP administrations under popular MLHW Minister Yoichi Masuzoe. A couple of other legislative proposals have gone by the wayside, including a controversial if inconsequential—apologies to Yoshiko Sakurai and Sankei Shinbun—proposal, long championed by Ozawa and Hatoyama and Foreign Affairs Minister Okada among many (but opposed by coalition partner PNP’s leader Shizuka Kamei), to give permanent residents the right to vote in local elections. This one has been tossed back, if reports are to be believed, by Ozawa himself to the Hatoyama Cabinet—which appears to be shelving it for the foreseeable future.

In all this, it has often appeared that it is less Ozawa himself than associates of this enigmatic, often laconic, figure to using the shadows that he casts to push their own personal agendas. In truth, Ozawa has not weighed in on any of the substantive issues that are headliners in their own right. Contrary to headlines both mainstream and non, Ozawa has remained faithful to the compact that allowed him to exercise an iron hand on party matters while putting Hatoyama and his cabinet in control of policy.

Does this mean that all is well in Tokyo? No. Ozawa’s failure to discipline his henchpersons (yes, “henchperson” is recognized as a word by Bill Gates) still leaves Hatoyama vulnerable to charges that he is a figurehead for whom Ozawa calls the shots. Now, Hatoyama is doing more than his share to create political distraction by his own stream-of-consciousness explications of his political intent. He doesn’t need the media’s help to further erode public perception of his political authority—a turn of events which would seriously harm DPJ prospects come the 2010 Upper House elections there the DPJ hopes to rack up a simple majority, which would allow it to rule without the help of its demanding coalition partners.

In the meantime, the problem can spill over into substance. The downsizing of the Task Force (which also forced Sengoku and Edano to pick from multiple-term Diet members who had been passed over by Hatoyama and his ministers for sub-cabinet portfolios and by Ozawa for top party and parliamentary appointments) has forced it to narrow its focus, limiting the potential budget savings from its inquisition of the ministries and agencies and their cling-ons.

Failure to meet expectations plus a growing sense of powerlessness, if illusionary, nevertheless will spell a deadly combination for the Hatoyama administration. The Prime Minister must project a credible sense of being in control; otherwise, he runs the very real danger of allowing the situation to slip by him and create a future that will definitely not be to his liking.

Sorry, have had enough time/energy to go over new comments.

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