Thursday, November 29, 2007

Finance Minister Nukaga Seems to Be in the Clear and the Refueling Bill Continues on Course for a Supermajority Override

When even the Asahi says (English translation available tomorrow) that forcing Fukushirō Nukaga, the LDP “defense tribe” member and current Finance Minister, to testify under oath in the Upper House is a bad idea, well then, it is a bad idea. The lack of a plausible motive for dissembling about a dinner in honor of James Auer should have set off warning signs in the minds of DPJ leaders. Now, Mr. Nukaga has provided a relatively secure alibi for his presence elsewhere during the said dinner, as well as five of the eight people (not including a hypothetical Mr. Nukaga) corroborating his absence. As if that were not enough, Takemasa Moriya, who gave two extraordinary Yomiuri interviews for a total of seven hours on the 14th and 24th, stated:

“I kept saying, ‘(My memories) may be wrong,’ ‘I don’t want to cause inconvenience.’ But since they insisted, ‘Talk’… (Finance Minister Nukaga, etc. [ed. Akio Kyūma])) said, ‘I didn’t go’, I then became worried that I could have been mistaken.

The public had been led to believe that the DPJ had corroborating testimony on its side. Now, it turns out that what it had all along was a seating diagram and other bits of information coaxed out of Mr. Moriya himself, whose memory appears to be a few megabytes short of my PC. This is not on the order of the fake email that took down then DPJ leader Seiji Maehara, but it will be an embarrassment at best for the DPJ.

One plausible explanation for the DPJ’s continued insistence that Mr. Nukaga be called to testify on 3 December (it claims to want to question Mr. Moriya separately as part of the UH committee proceedings, in jail after he is arrested later today) is that they want to delay deliberations on the refueling bill as much as possible, partly to force the LDP to extend the current Diet session for another 30 days or so, partly because they want as much time as possible to get their own act together on their own ineffectual proposal. I have been surprised that the DPJ does not appear to be going after the allegations of potential influence peddling by Mr. Nukaga coming from Nobumasa Ōta. Perhaps it has good reasons to avoid its 2004 UH candidate Mr. Ōta, whom they pointedly did not endorse for a second try this year. I am also mystified as to why they are not throwing all their resources at attacking the overall procurement process, given the spread of corruption charges beyond the Defense Facilities Administration Agency scandals (2006) that left the MOD itself relatively untouched. Perhaps the DPJ does have something up its sleeve to spring on the unsuspecting LDP - say give names of LDP politicians who were on the take list at Yamada Yōkō and could be shown to have reciprocated with pressure on the bureaucracy - in which case they’re doing a very good job of hiding it*. Barring such surprises though, insisting on questioning Mr. Nukaga is a losing proposition, from which only LDP intransigence that would allow the DPJ to claim they are being forced to give it up so that the business of statecraft can go on can give them a face-saving out.

But so far, this is a mere sideshow blown up to unwarranted proportions. The broader issue of military procurement reform is in the capable hands of Nobutaka Machimura Chief Cabinet Secretary, though the formidable defense otaku and Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba will surely play a major role in the process. The DPJ needs to play a critical, but constructive, role here if it is to be seen as the reasonable, responsible party capable of taking the reins from the ruling coalition.

As for the main event politically, that is, the refueling bill, my assessment here remains unchanged, that a supermajority override and a motion of some kind, more specifically a censure vote, is a done deal; unless, of course, the opposition loses its nerve and forgoes the motion. After all, there will be few, if any, better occasions for the Fukuda administration to test the waters of supermajority override than a measure that has a modest majority or a sizable plurality (depending on which poll you believe) of support among a relatively informed and also relatively indifferent public. That way, you can avoid any risk of setting off an unforeseen catastrophe that would - admittedly in the most implausible of circumstances - force the Prime Minister to call a snap election** that the ruling coalition is sure to lose. And pulled off successfully, like most things, it will be easier the second time around and beyond.

*There’s potential blowback at Ichiro Ozawa, who received from Yamada Yōkō (and has now returned) almost three times as much political funds than Mr. Nukaga did. This is reminiscent of the political financing reporting controversy, which, among other things, revealed a string Mr. Ozawa’s real estate acquisitions with political funds, as well as a resurrection of the mysterious transfer of funds to Mr. Ozawa’s political coffers just before his Liberal Party was merged into the DPJ (2003), as I posted here. Having someone who embodies the old-school LDP at the helm has a downside.

**There is some talk from the LDP, some of them in positions of responsibility, about an early snap election following a censure motion. I have no access to those people, but I think that they are blowing smoke. The public will not like being asked for a new four-year mandate on the basis of a difference of opinion on a matter as esoteric and other-worldly as “right thing to do” around the Afghan war zone, so the chances of losing the two-thirds majority will be even higher. Mr. Ozawa would exit the scene, since there is little chance of the DPJ winning more seats than the LDP (the new, lower bar of success for the DPJ), but that would be a mixed blessing, and far from the clear upside that the LDP needs to justify taking a plunge.

Then what is the purpose of all the talk? Some of it could be genuine fear that public opinion might turn against them if they exercise the supermajority. But I doubt it, given the peripheral nature of the issue to the real concerns of the public. More importantly, I believe that there are at least a couple of matters motivating the party leadership to do it:

1) Keep the coalition members, most notably New Kōmeitō, in line. There is nothing an incumbent likes less than an early election, and the NK is particularly wary of going to the Sōkagakkai so soon after the September Upper House election, moreover after an override vote on an issue that does not have the full-hearted support of its rank-and-file.

2) Keep the DPJ on its toes. That helps in several ways, like tempting the DPJ to overplay its hand, which it is doing on the Auer-dinner, he-said, he-said trivia.

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