Saturday, November 08, 2008

Dithering over the Ecnomic Package and the Tamogami Affair Undermines Aso Administration

The Aso administration has bungled the one-off handout to households (in response to New Komeito demands, first envisaged mainly as a tax rebate) that is supposed to be a major feature of the second tranche in the government response to the economic downturn. It doesn’t help that it’s also doing a bad job in handling the Tamogami affair. These two problems are having serious political consequences for the Aso administration.
Prime Minister Aso must have hoped to generate momentum with the second stimulus package and ride it through to a snap election, but I think that the opposite is beginning to happen. For the first time, I’m considering the possibility that the LDP-New Komeito coalition will, for want of a better option, wind up limping along under a weakened Aso administration till the current term of the Lower House expires. The DPJ has done little during the economic crisis to distinguished itself—it has failed to promote its own somewhat wonkish, financial market rescue package*, and had declined to offer an alternative approach to the current crisis, belatedly authorizing an update to the promises in its 2007 election manifesto with this decision—but it is in the lucky position of not actually being in charge. DPJ deputy Yukio Hatoyama’s links to the APA Group, which sponsored the contest that Mr. Tamogami is increasingly likely to end up a minor diversion in the bigger story of institutional involvement on the part of the JASDF.

The coalition manouvers to turn the next election into an Aso-Ozawa duel is losing out to the DPJ strategy to mold it into a referendum on LDP governance is getting a big boost. Some details follow:

The New Komeito had hatched the idea for a government handout and forced it on a reluctant Fukuda administration as part of its stimulus package. It would be fleshed out later and presumably ready to be presented to the Diet at the beginning of its next session for approval. However, as the effects of the broadening global financial crisis threatened to produce a full-fledged economic recession, the newly installed Aso administration pushed a second, larger tranche of expansionary measures that would incorporate the handout.

On October 30, the two coalition parties struck a deal between themselves, hoping that this would help them reverse the decline in public support going into the next Lower House election. But the devil is in the details, and there has been much squabbling since between and within the LDP and New Komeito over the scope of the handout and the means to implement it. Prime Minister Aso’s tendency to think out loud has not helped, and Cabinet Ministers have begun publicly airing their own differing views. All this is bad for an administration that needs to earn public confidence in its ability to deal with the deepening economic crisis.

In the beginning, the Tamogami affair had appeared to be a minor if embarrassing sideshow, culminating with General Tamogami’s dismissal as Chief of Staff, Air Self-Defense Force. Given the technical nature of his infraction, I had thought that it would end with his retirement from active duty, having reached mandatory retirement age as a general, possibly with a mild reprimand for his delinquency. However, subsequent revelations have raised governance issues on multiple levels.

First came the news that the Education Division of the Air Defense Office had promoted the essay contest within the ASDF. Next, it was revealed that Sixth Wing, formerly commanded by the now retired General Tamogami held its own essay contest under the same theme and deadline. So far, the number of Air Self-Defense Force members who entered the APA Group essay contest has reached 94 out of all 235 entries, and most of them have come from the Sixth Wing. Meanwhile, the Aso administration’s response has been less than stellar, as it became known that it had allowed General (Ret.) Tamogami to retire without administrative sanction when he refused to waive his right to a hearing. The Aso administration compounded its judgment error when it asked Mr, Tamogami to return (some of?) his 60,000,000 yen severance payment. Mr. Tamogami to the embarrassment of the authorities refused to comply. It is hard to avoid the suspicion that Mr. Tamogami used the powers of his office to push a personal political and ideological agenda that is at odds with the Japanese government’s official positions; the Aso administration has responded poorly.

Incidentally, the impact has reached the Yomiuri media group as well. According to a hardcopy Yomiuri report, the judges of the essay contest were: Toshio Motoya, the sartorially expressive chairman of the APA Group (see images on Mutant Frog); Shoichi Watanabe, Professor Emeritus at Sophia University;, Nobuaki Hanaoka, visiting member of the Sankei Shinbun editorial board; Yasuhide “See Shsaku Blood Boil” Nakayama, LDP Diet member; and Kazuo Komasuzaki, President of the Hochi Shinbun. According to the same report, APA is claiming that “Mr. Tamogami’s essay was unanimously awarded the top prize [which happened to come with a 3,000,000 yen prize]”, but there is a judge who says that “I felt that the contents of Mr. Tamogami’s essay was radical, so I gave it zero points.” In case anyone is wondering who that judge may be, Hochi Shinbun happens to be the sports/tabloid wing of the Yomiuri group (some of whose casual readers believe that the Yomiuri Giants baseball team has never lost a game since 1958).

* This Sankei editorial demanded that Ichiro Ozawa tell us what the DPJ would be doing to overcome the financial crisis if it had been in power, apparently in ignorance of the DPJ’s October 15 financial market rescue proposal. Perhaps it is all for the better, since the financial market component of the DPJ’s November 5 economic package has turned out to be quite different.

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