Monday, August 11, 2008

They Have Lost the Plot

When I first saw this cartoon in the Sankei Shimbun of July 18, I thought it was off-base.

Here is the stern Diet Building, with glasses and jabbing index finger, instructing a glum Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo, himself in casual summer garb, to pay attention to the open textbook of Cabinet Reshuffle (Naikaku Kaizō) whereupon is the blurb, in tiny lettering "Without Making a Mistake!" Another textbook lies on the desk: Summer Homework (Natsu no shukudai).

The explanation at the bottom: "Because if you fail the makeup exam, then you will be in real trouble!"

First, to print this cartoon on what was for most of Japan's elementary and middle school students the first day of summer break, reminding them of the mountains of homework their teachers have assigned them to do over what is ostensibly a vacation period, was unspeakably depressing.

Second, the idea that Fukuda absolutely had to shuffle the Cabinet, like a child has to do his summer homework, seemed specious. Given the paucity of plausible cabinet members and the seriousness of the issues being tackled, a reshuffle seemed more of a distraction than an imperative.

However, I had forgotten that even under Koizumi Jun'ichirō (my hero) the replacement of ministers was a common occurrence. Indeed, under the celebrated Mr. K the Cabinet reshuffle was a startlingly predictable event - always in September, as a preamble to the extraordinary Diet session, except in 2005 when the House of Representatives election delayed the reshuffle until October.

So in a sense, Prime Minister Fukuda did indeed have to buckle down and get the reshuffle out of the way, like a schoolboy getting through his homework.

However, the idea of having a reshuffle out of the way by the first day of August, before everyone skipped out of Tokyo for their Obon break, was predicated on the theory that the extraordinary Diet session was going to be starting in late August...and the reason why the extraordinary session had to start in late August was to have ample time for the House of Representatives to pass a one year extension of the refueling mission to the Indian Ocean, with time enough left in the session to override the House of Councillors, should the House of Councillors fail to take action on the dispatch legislation.

Because the dispatch is vital to Japan's international standing.

However, here we have entered the Obon break period...and the starting date of the extraordinary session is left hanging the air.

Leaders of the New Kōmeitō are reportedly pushing for a mid- to late-September start for the extraordinary Diet session, rendering an extension of the Indian Ocean dispatch via override within the allotted time a near impossibility. Liberal Democratic Party leaders, rather than telling their ruling coalition partners to kindly go to hell, are starting to talk about changing the nature of the dispatch mission in the hopes of finding common ground with at least some of the members of the Democratic Party of Japan in the House of Councillors. Indeed, the LDP elite has have been jawing up a storm about transforming the mission from the refueling of Allied ships patrolling the Arabian Sea in order to thwart the free movement of terrorists into a mission to guard crude oil tankers headed for Japan.

LDP strategists (I know, I find it hard to type out the phrase) believe that a goodly fraction of the DPJ members in the House of Councillors would be willing to vote for such an escort mission.

The cooperation of DPJ House of Councillors members would obviate the need to use the override - which LDP leaders think is the only way to get the anti-terrorism extension passed (gosh, they did learn something from the events of last year). The New Kōmeitō has stated point blank it will not provide the votes necessary to pass the dispatch legislation via a House of Representatives override.

The ability to pass some kind dispatch legislation without the override permits a delay the start of the fall extraordinary session. So it is OK if we are eleven days into August without a scheduled starting date.

Or, at least, that is the theory.

Faced with the possibility of annihilation at the polls unless it bribes voters, the ruling coalition has suddenly gone squishy. The government's official declaration of the end of the economic expansion has been taken not as signal of a need for tough decisions but as a green light for a tossing out of fiscal targets in an attempt to preserve economic growth. Fundamental reform of the tax system, which the ruling coalition was claiming as recently as a few weeks ago was to be the centerpiece of the fall political calendar, has been kicked a few years down the road again.

As for the delayed transfer of gasoline levy revenues to the general fund, does anyone believe the government will keep its promises?

The New Kōmeitō is furthermore purportedly pushing hard for an election in mid December-early January. Again, mysteriously, the leaders of the LDP have not told their coalition partners to go acquire carnal knowledge of themselves -- which is what one would expect were the LDP leaders serious about choosing to do what is right for the country in the extraordinary session (raise the consumption tax, resist further fuel subsidies, attack the long term weaknesses of the pension system) then holding off conducting a House of Representative election until September 2009, the last possible moment - hoping that in the meantime the public would had come to forgive the LDP for biting the bullet on the tough issues facing the country.

[Note - The breakdown of fiscal discipline is a predictable, but still sad response to the Ozawa Ichirō-led DPJ's tactics of making outlandish promises to every single special interest. That the DPJ is being insincere in making these promises is self-evident: there is no way to make their budget numbers work. However, the ruling coalition's resistance has been broken; it feels it must meet or surpass the DPJ's promises of largess.]

If the LDP is going to go even further, and accept the New Komeito's schedule for a snap mid-winter election, how in heck will the LDP switch from Prime Minister Fukuda -- an assumed electoral dead weight -- to supposedly groovy but only Secretary-General Aso Tarō? Or do they think that the public will accept Aso as a "leader-in-waiting" with Fukuda anointing him as his certain post-election successor?

And more importantly, if the ruling coalition is going to take an intentional pass on the tough issues it had promised to tackle in the autumn extraordinary session, shifting instead into pre-election mode - what the heck was the point of the Cabinet reshuffle?

Later - Upon reflection, a better title for this post would have been, "They Have Lost Me."

1 comment:

Jan Moren said...

My guess is that the point of the reshuffle is simply to fulfil the expectation that a cabinet reshuffle should be taking place at around this time of the Fukuda administration. And the reason the expectation widely exists is simply because (as you point out as well), cabinet reshuffles always take place. They don't need a particular reason; they're simply tradition, following the examples of history, It's How Things Are Properly Done.

I have argued that LDP is not only heavily bound by rules and procedure, but that the rules and the procedure is largely what still keeps the party intact. Break expectations and you may break the party.

"LDP strategists (I know, I find it hard to type out the phrase) ..." Thanks; I have to wipe a mouthful of coffee off my keyboard now. Nice turn of phrase there.