"You have sold out your principles and earned the enmity of your rank-and-file by swallowing wholesale everything we have demanded!"
"I most certainly have not. I have crafted a temporary compromise. I have saved what I could of one of our cherished policies in the face of the fiscal demands of the March 11 disasters."
This sparkling and adult exchange was not exactly how Liberal Democratic Party Research Council Chairman Ishiba Shigeru and Democratic Party of Japan Research Council Chairman Gemba Koichiro argued over last Thursday’s signing of an agreement between the DPJ and the LDP on limiting the government’s child support payments plan. But it might as well have been, given the juvenile breakout of a fight over what to call the compromise.
For the LDP and New Komeito signers of the compromise, next April will see the return of a government anti-poverty program for families with children, so the compromise system is a jido teate (child allowance) – the name the program had under the LDP-New Komeito coalition government. For the DPJ, the name of the program remains the kodomo teate (child allowance), the name of the universal child support payment plan promised in the DPJ’s 2009 manifesto. DPJ leaders point out that 1) the current program remains unchanged until April 2012 and 2) the new program will be much more generous in terms of its payouts and will raise the maximum income level for eligibility for the program over what the LDP and the New Komeito were demanding.
The breakout of a fight over the name of the compromise, virtually only hours after the signing ceremony, does not bode well for a quick meeting of minds over remainder of the so-called "4K" differences of opinion separating the DPJ from the LDP-New Komeito alliance*. Indeed, Gemba argued this weekend that having taken such a hit on the kodomo teate, the first of the four programs the LDP and New Komeito want erased, the DPJ has the right to refuse to budge on the remaining three: the kosoku doro muryoka - the basic abolition of tolls on the nation’s expressways; the koko jugyoryo mushoka - the abolition of fees for high schools; and the nogyo kobetsu shotoku hosho seido - the granting of agriculture subsidies not just to large-scale farmers but to all farmers. Gemba's declaration sparked a quick rebuke from LDP president Tanigaki Sadakazu: "It is a mistake to not show a posture of compromise."
It seems petty for the LDP-New Komeito to be demanding to renegotiate all of the 4K policies, with the hopes of essentially gutting the DPJ's domestic policy program, all in return for voting in favor of the DPJ bill to extend the government’s ability to issue bonds – one of the three bills prime minister Kan Naoto has demanded be passed before he is willing to step down. Imposing an income cap on the kodomo teate program and reducing the payments to well below what the DPJ promised in 2009 should be victory enough, seeing as how it results in a huge cut in government expenditures, one of the alliance's purported goals.
However, the hatred the LDP-New Komeito members feel toward the 4Ks blinds them to any thought that they are being poor winners right now. It is alliance dogma that these four programs were then DPJ president Ozawa Ichiro's way of bribing vital constituencies into voting for the DPJ in 2009 – a view quite oblivious to the reality, well documented in the public opinion polls, that the public was simply tired of the LDP-New Komeito coalition and were willing to give the DPJ its shot at power. The kodomo teate, with its promise of covering the monthly childcare costs (child healthcare to age 5 is already free) of all Japanese families, regardless of income, and the elimination of fees for high school students supposedly bought the votes of the urban and suburban middle classes. The promise to eliminate tolls on the expressways bought the votes of the trucking industry and its unions. The extension of the farm subsidies program from full-time farmers bent on expanding their production acreage to all farmers no matter what the size of their farms naturally bought the rural agricultural sector votes. Without these four, budget-busting programs, the LDP and New Komeito members argue, their parties would not have suffered the complete electoral washout they suffered in 2009.
The great irony of the fight over the remaining of the “Ks” is that the current leadership of the DPJ and the Cabinet are none too thrilled about them either. The elimination fight has proceeded in the wrong direction: the current DPJ leadership, eager to curry favor with the first termers in the party who were elected on the 2009 platform, deeply desired to keep the kodomo teate program intact, arguing that it represented a birth encouragement program and an economic stimulus program (though the evidence of its efficacy in either department is nearly impossible to find, either in the literature or in the statistics). As for the tolls abolition, the fees abolition and the payments to farmers, these the current DPJ leadership would be in agreement that they were structured as pure giveaways, Ozawa Ichiro’s way of transforming the budget-conscious DPJ he inherited into an “ice cream for everyone” election machine.
Something will have to give if the bond issuance bill is to get through the Diet before a) the government runs out of money and b) the DPJ loses its collective mind over the continued premiership of Kan. The DPJ has vowed to push the bill this week through the House of Representatives, daring the House of Councillors, controlled by the opposition, to either reject the bill or sit on it until the end of the current extended Diet session. Inaction on the bill means that Kan will remain prime minister, a situation the LDP and the New Komeito, after arguing so forcefully for his resignation, now perversely wish to prolong, forcing the DPJ’s younger leaders to mark time twiddling their thumbs.
The key player in all this is public opinion. If the recalcitrance of the LDP-New Komeito alliance on the bond bill leads to an erosion of its current high levels of support among the voters, the LDP and New Komeito will likely fold on the remainder of the 4Ks, knowing as they do that the remaining three programs, at least the abolition of tolls and the farm subsidies, are slated for cuts in the budget of the next DPJ prime minister. If public opinion shows no erosion of support for the LDP and the New Komeito, then it will be the DPJ that will have to take another hit, scaling down or even eliminating the three programs – with the added bitter pill that even then, the LDP and the New Komeito can double cross the DPJ and vote down the bond bill.
Unfortunately for the DPJ, most of the major news organizations run their public opinion polls at the end of the month – which is when the current Diet session is scheduled to end. Unless some unit of the press breaks ranks and publishes a poll mid-month, the DPJ may be ahead in the fight to win the argument over the passage of the bond bill, and yet not be able to prove it.
* Calling the four diffences of opinion the 4Ks echoes the so-called 3Ks of undesirable jobs, those jobs that are kitanai (dirty), kitsui (exhausting) and kiken (dangerous). The implication is that like the 3Ks, the 4Ks are intolerable.