Sunday, July 22, 2012

Japan's Depleted Politics

This Sunday's morning talk show lineup provided a stark demonstration of the depleted state of this blessed land's politics. Following a week of significant action -- the defection of four more members of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan and the consequent formation of two new parliamentary caucuses in the Diet and even more more in the local assemblies (J - Yamanashi and J - Tochigi); the public humiliation of Ambassador to China Niwa Uichiro, the first non-bureaucrat to hold the post, over his matter-of fact assessment that a purchase of three of the Senkaku Islands by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government would likely lead to great frictions in between Japan and China (E - When will the Government of Japan get around to issuing the "It's OK talk to anyone -- ANYONE -- just not the Financial Times" directive?); the first serious hiccup in the seemingly unstoppable march of Osaka City mayor Hashimoto Toru (for those keeping score: July 21 = 0 tweets) -- the best that Nichiyo Toron, the national broadcaster NHK's flagship political debate program could come up with was a debate in between Jojima Koriki and Kishida Fumio, the Diet Affairs chairmen of the DPJ and the Liberal Democratic Party, respectively. For 22 minutes, rather than the customary hour. And with Kishida not even in the Tokyo studio but piped in from outside.

This is nearly unprecedented. Nichiyo Toron almost always has at least the policy chiefs of all the major and mini-parties of the Diet on display, if not the party secretary-generals. True, the result looks ludicrous, with the representative of the ruling DPJ and the representative of its coalition appendage the People New Party on one side facing off against six (now, with Ozawa Ichiro's new Livelihood Party, it would be seven) representatives of the main opposition parties on the other, requiring the moderator to carry out a delicate dance of traffic control in between the criticisms of the opposition and the assertions of the ruling coalition and in between the positions of the significant parties and the sad bleatings of the insignificant.

The abbreviated face-off covered only a tiny range of issues. Both men offered their party's positions on:

1) the progress of the main reform social welfare and pension bills (ittai kaikaku hoan), including the bill raising consumption tax to 10%, through the House of Councillors

2) the schedule for the holding of House of Representative elections, once the ittai kaikaku bills pass the House of Councillors, as the written agreement in between the DPJ, LDP and the New Komeito requires

3) the likelihood of the LDP cooperating with the DPJ in passing the all-important bond issuance bill necessary to implement the DPJ-drafted budget, before the money runs out of money in October (E)

4) the competing bills of the DPJ and LDP on reforming the districts and size of House of Representatives, in order that an election might be constitutional

5) the stability and legitimacy of the DPJ-led government, in light of the recent waves of defections from the DPJ

These five subjects are all linked together as in a chain: the solving of one leads to and depends upon the solving of others. As the sparse attendance at Nichiyo Toron debate indicates, these are issues the DPJ and the LDP have to work out between themselves, as no combination of either party with any of the other parties in the Diet can approve any of the necessary legislation.

The greatest hurdle is an agreement on the reform of the House of Representatives. At present, 97 districts have populations greater than 2 times the population of the smallest district, meaning that over half the votes in those 97 districts are essentially thrown away. Despite a history of deference to the executive and legislative branches, the Supreme Court has thrown down a challenge, declaring any disparity greater than 1.99 to 1 unconstitutional, putting some meat on Article 14 of the Constitution, which guarantees citizens equality under the law.

The LDP bill, known as the +0/-5 Solution, is a clever response to the Supreme Court's challenge. Rather than giving the voters in the 97 grossly underrepresented districts a greater say in the running of their government, the bill would simply abolish the five smallest districts. The disparity of between the 97 largest districts and the smallest district would then fall below the 1.99 limit.

The attraction of this bill for the LDP is obvious. It preserves almost intact the inequalities that perpetuated LDP rule for 50 years. The urban and suburban, revenue-producing districts are denigrated, while the largely rural districts, with their government contract- and regulation-protected economies, are elevated.

The competing DPJ bill has as its core the +0/-5 Solution, which is contrary to the interests of the DPJ's natural constituency, the abused urban and suburban electorate. Tacked on to the +0/-5 core, however, are a pair of amendments that at once entice and repel the New Komeito, the LDP's alliance partner.

The DPJ bill is thus not a bill at all. It is a red herring, a lie told in order to keep the LDP and the New Komeito engaged, under the illusion that a weakened DPJ is ready to cut a deal on redistricting. In return the LDP and the New Komeito, out of their present eagerness to hold an election, are expected to offer concessions on pending bills, such as the all-important bond issuance bill.

However, all the gamesmanship cannot disguise a basic reality: the DPJ and the LDP no longer have the luxury of playing ruling party versus opposition. With the recent defections of 16 House of Councillors members, the DPJ no longer has the option of teaming up with the New Komeito to pass bills through both Houses of the Diet. Only a DPJ-LDP consensus can guarantee a bill's passage.

Furthermore, as Okumura Jun has noted, barring the intrusion of a Hashimoto Toru-led national political party -- which, due to this week's revelations and Hashimoto's sudden loss of his voice, suddenly has become far less of a threat to the status quo -- there is no plausible set of election results altering the necessity of DPJ-LDP cohabitation. An election, if held today, would not prove or solve anything.

Furthermore, the LDP membership does not really want to have an election, not now. Party president Tanigaki Sadakazu has proven a disappointment, unable, since his election in 2009, to improve his party's standing with the electorate, despite the DPJ's many stumbles and bumbles. Tanigaki's term ends in September; several of his more aggressive and thoughtful colleagues are poised to replace him. Eager to force an election before his term runs out, Tanigaki advocates implacable confrontation with the DPJ. His intra-party rivals, unwilling to undermine the authority of the party presidency that they themselves covet, echo his intransigence, though with a distinct lack of enthusiasm.

Hence the current poverty of Japanese politics. While a multitude of decisions await, the direction of the country is hostage to the passage of a handful of bills. Furthermore, a faith that party identity is honed through conflict with the other side, a legacy of the LDP's long reign in power, holds the two major parties back from inescapable collaboration.

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