|Streltzov Dmitry, Japanese Politics a Year after Fukushima|
A year has gone by since the terrible earthquake of March 11 and the accident at the Fukushima-1 nuclear power plant. The anniversary of the tragedy has become a kind of milestone, not just for the country’s economic recovery, the affected areas and the country as a whole, but also for its politics. The period of consolidation during which the opposing political forces avoided squabbling in the face of threats to the nation has come to an end.
There was no moratorium on criticizing the government during the first post-Fukushima year, of course, but the LDP and other opposition parties nevertheless refrained from taking an openly obstructionist position on, for example, supplementing the budget and other recovery measures for the affected regions. The LDP’s primary objective was for the prime minister to call early parliamentary elections and recover from its crushing defeat in 2009.
Despite their bellicose rhetoric, the Liberal Democrats mainly demanded partial concessions in exchange for their cooperation, primarily the resignation of cabinet members who slipped up. Prime Minister Naoto Kan himself resigned in January 2012 as a result of deals reached with the LDP in August 2011. Yoshiko Noda had to shuffle the cabinet by firing two ministers who made thoughtless remarks.
A year later, however, the opposition obviously feels less bound by the requirements for “political correctness,” and that gives it much more freedom to derail the legislative process by seeking new parliamentary elections.
A key feature of the contemporary political scene is that the main issue before parliament — raising the consumption tax rate — painfully affects the vital interests of the overwhelming majority of Japanese voters. On the one hand, since the total public debt is twice the size of the GDP and social services each year require ever-growing sums of money, totaling more than 40% of budget expenditures, finding qualitatively new sources of funding is a categorical imperative for the current government. The consumption tax falls in that category because it affects all of the country’s consumers equally, and raising it is the most socially equitable way to increase the tax burden.
The government proposes reforming taxes by increasing tax rates according to a set schedule: to 8% in April 2014 and 10% in April 2015. The tax increase is firmly linked to reform of the social services system under the “one reform” plan (increasing the consumption tax while ensuring a minimum standard for pensions and social benefits).
The prospect of raising the consumption tax has met with a mixed reaction in Japanese society. Most Japanese — 61% according to a public opinion poll conducted by the newspaper Yomiuri in late January — consider it “necessary” to raise the consumption tax in order to support the social services system. However, only 16% of respondents agreed with the government’s strict schedule, and the majority felt it was a much longer term issue. The Japanese on the whole are inclined to believe that the government itself is to blame for the poor state of public finances, so the first step should be restoring the financial help of the public sector, reducing the size of the bureaucracy, cutting civil servant salaries, etc. Under the circumstances, early parliamentary elections immediately after passage of the tax bill would almost certainly result in substantial losses for the Democrats in the lower house and, in the worst case, the transfer of power to their rivals.
Meanwhile, the Noda government has virtually no chance of passing the bill in the “screwed-up parliament” before the current session ends without serious concessions from the opposition. In addition, the cabinet head’s shaky position in his own party is a big problem for the DPJ, which is divided between the forces opposed to Ichiro Ozawa and the groups that support him.
Ozawa is strongly opposed to raising the consumption tax and, if necessary, can stage a “mutiny” —"no" votes by just a few dozen of his supporters would be enough to bury it. Also, it is not just Ozawa’s supporters that could vote against the bill. It could also be opposed by deputies from groups loyal to Noda who are well aware of how unhappy the public is with the government’s bill and therefore rightly fear for their own seats if new elections are held. In addition, the DPJ’s partner in the ruling coalition — the New People’s Party —is opposed to raising the tax.
Noda was forced to announce an internal party “discussion” on the issue of raising the tax in order to develop a party position. He simultaneously announced that he would not expel dissidents from the party, as LDP leader Junichiro Koizumi did with party opponents in 2005.
The weakness of Noda’s position is evident from a press leak about a backstage meeting between the DPJ leader and LDP chairman Sazukazu Tanigaki that supposedly took place on February 25 in one of Tokyo’s hotels. Although the government later denied that the meeting had occurred, we can assume that the tax bill was the main topic of discussion (assuming the meeting actually happened). Noda was probably trying to enlist the support of the LDP, which the government would need should the “mutiny” I mentioned earlier come about. However, early elections are the only thing the DPJ has to offer the Liberal Democrats in return. Meanwhile, the likelihood that elections will be held is complicated by a recent Supreme Court decision that election results could be challenged on constitutional grounds unless district boundaries are redrawn.
Therefore, a possible package deal between the DPJ and the LDP could look like this: Before the end of the current session, parliament passes an election reform bill using, for example, a formula proposed by the LDP (to abolish five “small districts”), as well as a bill to raise the consumption tax, after which Noda would dissolve parliament and announce early elections. The deal would certainly not mean that an LDP-DPJ “grand coalition” is forming; it would be the product of a temporary compromise.
It should be noted, however, that the the human factor is very important in dissolving parliament — namely, by whose initiative and in what form it would be done. The political force that takes the actual initiative in overcoming the current crisis would have a psychological advantage. If it looks as though Noda is dissolving parliament as part of a package deal, the DPJ’s chances in the elections would drop significantly because the voters would see it as a sign that the DPJ is weak and, more importantly, that it is the subject of behind-the-scenes agreements concluded by the Democrats’ leadership.
The LDP, however, would likely get a boost from “floating votes,” for whom practical confirmation that the LDP can impose its ideas for recovery on the government would be an important argument.
It would be a different matter if the DPJ were to dissolve parliament on its own initiative after a well-orchestrated failure of attempts to negotiate with the opposition, for example, as a result of blockage of the government’s bill by the upper house. Should that happen, the Democrats could present the case that the electorate faces a choice between “outmoded conservative forces” and “the party of progress and reform.” That would give the DPJ more propaganda opportunities to play up the idea that the LDP is selfish and the party of negativity.
The package deal would certainly be a good one if they could be confident of succeeding in early elections. However, neither the DPJ nor the LDP can be sure of that.
Let’s take a look at the LDP. This party failed to recover from the deep political crisis caused by its inability to effectively implement a generational change in the party leadership. Another problem with the LDP is that it has been unable to offer a constructive political program as an alternative to DPJ proposals. Over the two and a half years since the LDP’s fall from the heights its strategy and tactics have amounted to nothing more than criticizing the government, tallying its errors and accusing the DPJ of not fulfilling its election promises. Even on the tax bill, the LDP has constantly criticized the Noda cabinet for refusing to make good on the DPJ’s election promises not to increase the consumption tax in the next few years, although the liberal Democrats’ election campaign itself called for a 10% increase in the consumption tax.
Public opinion polls confirm that the LDP is going through a systemic crisis. Despite the significant drop in the ratings of both the government (from 37% to 30%) and the DPJ (from 25% to 16%), the LDP’s rating stood at 17% when Noda reshuffled the cabinet in January. In other words, the LDP has been unable to exploit the voters’ negative energy against the current government, especially their dissatisfaction with how the recovery is going.
In February, 9% of respondents favored a government formed entirely by the LDP, and 5% favored a DPJ-only government. A slightly larger percentage — 23% — supported a “grand coalition” formed by the LDP and the DPJ. However, more than half (53%) of respondents favored a government based on a new configuration of political forces. In other words, surveys show that currently voters are extremely disappointed with both “systemic parties” and dream of a complete shake-up of the entire political world.
That makes us wonder what new forces can take the place of the “systemic parties.” Obviously, Komeito cannot. At best, it can mobilize no more than 5-7% of the voters. Nevertheless, the DPJ still has powerful forces interested in, if not winning Komeito over to their side, at least neutralizing it by making separate deals. The latter unambiguously include a (“private”) electoral reform project proposed by the DPJ. It would provide a new mechanism for a mixed electoral system that would give small and medium-sized parties proportionally clear advantages in a district.
The popularity of the Ishin no Kai party formed by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto has recently been attracting a great deal of attention from political commentators. Although as yet the party has no representation in parliament, it is actively positioning itself as a “new third force” capable of giving voters simple answers to complex questions. Catching a wave of populist sentiment among radical voters dissatisfied with the established mechanisms of political power, Ishin no Kai proposes abolishing the upper house, introducing direct general elections for the head of government, etc. Many say that Ishin no Kai has tremendous political potential and is capable of offering the “systemic parties” real competition in parliamentary elections. Ozawa’s support for Hashimoto’s party is seen as particularly germane to the prospect that the party could become more influential politically.
The issue of a radical shake-up of the political world will gain new relevance in September, when elections for the leaders of both the DPJ and the LDP are planned. Serious fights for the top party posts are anticipated. Chances are good that Noda will seek re-election for another term, provided the DPJ has not lost an early election by then, of course.
Beyond the usual desire to remain in power, the fact that Japanese voters are tired of the frequent change of cabinet heads favors that scenario: Japan has had six prime ministers in the last five years. Noda’s resignation would be a new blow to the already tarnished reputation of the Democrats, who have been unable to provide a strong political leader whose policies have consistently found an acceptable level of public support. There is also the distinct possibility that Noda could be replaced in order to renew the party’s image — the DPJ has already turned around slipping ratings several times with that maneuver.
As for the LDP, it lacks bright new political figures that could replace Tanigaki. Almost all of the possible candidates — former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba, ex-minister of public roads and communications Yuriko Koike, and even Shinzo Abe, whose term as Prime Minister ended without honor — resemble archaic politicians of an older generation who are clearly incapable of bringing a much-needed breath of fresh air to their party’s image. Among the relatively new and therefore more interesting figures are the LDP’s current secretary general, 54-year-old Nobuteru Ishihara, who last December said he would think about running if his chief and deputy head of the LDP faction in the House of Counselors, Yoshimasa Hayashi, does not. Hayashi is a member of the political dynasty that specializes in financial, administrative and fiscal matters (Hayashi’s father was finance minister in the Miyazawa cabinet in 1992). Hayashi’s only obstacle is that he is a member of the upper house (the LDP chairman is traditionally elected from the lower house). In any event, populist politicians capable of leading the masses by force of personal charisma are not the issue.
September will obviously be a “point of no return”: If parliament has not been dissolved by then, it will be much harder to find a rational justification for holding early elections before July of next year, when upper house elections must be held in accordance with the constitution. “Dual elections” would be more beneficial for both the LDP and the DPJ. They are equally concerned about the threat from from Ishin no Kai and Your Party, which are steadily gaining weight.
The proponents of “dual elections” hold a strong positions in both the DPJ and the LDP because major parties are better able than small and medium-size parties to mobilize large amounts of funding and large numbers of people for two election campaigns simultaneously.
At the same time, the third largest political party in the country — Komeito — is seeking to avoid dual elections and, considering that the elections to the Tokyo Municipal Assembly coming up next year, triple elections, as well. Komeito’s position encourages the Liberal Democrats to enlist their aid in getting parliament dissolved this year.
Dmitry Victorovich Streltsov is head of the Department of Oriental Studies of the Moscow State Institute for International Relations (University) of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This article was written expressly for New Eastern Outlook.
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