Monday, January 12, 2015

Note on the Saga Prefecture Gubernatorial Election

The people of Saga Prefecture have spoken, and Yoshinori Yamaguchi, the Japan Agricultural Cooperatives group (JA, or Nokyo) candidate, has defeated against Keisuke Hiwatashi, the LDP-Komeito candidate, handily in race for the governor’s office between two former MIC officials. This is obviously worrisome to the LDP as they look to the April unitary local elections, where typically low turnouts make the agricultural interests vote more valuable than in the national Diet elections. So what to make of the two relevant items on Prime Minister Abe’s policy agenda: taking down Central Union of Agricultural Co-operatives (JA-Zenchu) sitting atop the JA empire, and TPP?

Prime Minister Abe essentially wants to take the right to provide guidance to farmers and collect membership fees away from the politically powerful JA-Zenchu. Now, anyone who has been reading this blog or has heard me talk at any length on the Abe administration’s policy agenda knows that I think that this is trivial, almost a distraction, and that true reform must change tax law, the agricultural land regime, and restrictions on agricultural corporations. To put it another way, backing away from this to placate the JA political machine will do little harm to the third Abenomics arrow.

I suspect that many if not most policymakers in the Abe administration feel this way too. On the other hand, giving up altogether will reflect poorly on the Abe administration, as the mainstream media and most of the tabloid world will criticize it ferociously, some of that inevitably leaching out to the more docile TV broadcasting and cable networks, with negative impact on the overall LDP prospects for the April elections.

My guess is that the Abe administration will look for some form of JA devolution, taking some of the powers and money away from JA-Zenchu and giving more powers and a bigger cut of the membership fees to the prefectural cooperatives. The Abe administration could also give JA-Zenchu a cut of the inevitable TPP easement money and a role in forming and executing a response strategy.

I cannot rule out the possibility that the Abe administration will just go ahead with its plans despite the outcome of the Saga election. The loser Hiwatashi had been the mayor of Takeo, a small city where he grew up before he relocated to Tokyo for college and eventual acceptance to the civil servant fast-track. Media reports tell us that this background and the national profile that Takeo enjoyed as the result of its mayor’s efforts caused significant jealousy among the prefecture’s political elite. They also note that the Governor Furukawa’s precipitous decision to resign and run for national office and the highhanded way in which Hiwatashi was imposed on them as heir-apparent likewise aggravated the situation. If all this is true, there is a chance that Prime Minister Abe and his political advisors will decide that this was a one-off event, lesson learnt, and make sure that the locals are properly consulted if and when prefecture-wide or big-city offices come up for grabs. But if my guess is correct, then there is a middle way ahead that they will be aware of. If there is a “half-full” solution, why take the risk?

TPP is totally different. There is no way that Prime Minister Abe can allow himself to be held responsible for the total collapse of the negotiations or allow the TPP to move forward without Japan. TPP is the economic face of the larger geopolitical strategy that prioritizes US engagement in an Asia of likeminded nations. It is as essential to that agenda as the bilateral security arrangements (first and foremost with the United States but also including Australia, but also including the Philippines and Vietnam, with future attempts of outreach to India also a strong possibility) including joint development of weapons systems that the Abe administration is seeking. As Ishihara fil No.1 infamously said of the Fukushima victims, at the end of the day, it’s about the money. Likewise with the agricultural interests that suffers losses.

The silver lining for the LDP-Komeito coalition is that the antinuclear candidate failed to register as a factor. The nuclear power units at Genkai Station will rise or fall on their technical merits.

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