Saturday, June 12, 2010

No Thank You Mr. Postman

Oh yes, wait a minute Mr. Postman
Wait...Mr. Postman
- The Marvelettes (1961)
On May the 23rd a contented Kamei Shizuka, Minister for Financial Services and leader of the People's New Party, was seated next to a beaming Ozawa Ichiro, Secretary-General of the Democratic Party of Japan, on the dais at the National Postmasters Association (Zentoku) convention. Both men promised the assembled that they would push the Diet to pass legislation rolling back the reforms. They then asked for the association's support in the upcoming House of Councillors election. Associate president Tsuge Yoshifumi, welcoming the pledge, responded that in order to realize the goals of the legislation, members of his organization would have to do their best to promote the election of candidates identified with Zentoku -- after the bill's passage of course.

Three weeks later, Ozawa Ichiro has resigned from the position of DPJ Secretary-General. The new Prime Minister of Japan, Kan Naoto, has decided to delay the passage of the bill, currently in the House of Councillors, to a fall extraordinary session of the Diet -- effectively killing the bill in its present form. In response, Kamei Shizuka has resigned as Financial Services Minister, only three days after the inauguration of the Kan Cabinet. A member of Kamei's party has taken his place as minister and the PNP is still nominally in the Cabinet, but the relationship between the two parties is broken in spirit.

The reversal of fortunes of the postmasters and its unionized workforce, from courted darlings to abandoned has-beens, in such a short span of time reflects the tactical and strategic shifts the DPJ has undergone since the resignation of former Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio and Ozawa Ichiro.

On a tactical level, the huge surge in popularity of the Cabinet and the DPJ after the resignations of Hatoyama and Ozawa and the selection of Kan as the new party leader wiped out the electoral significance of Zentoku and postal union vote. For a ruling party with support levels hovering around 20%, every vote counts, particularly in thinly-populated rural single-seat prefectures. In rural areas the post office is the predominant banking, insurance and package delivery institution, often the only one. The fear of losing a community's sole financial services institution is reason enough to vote for the party Zentoku supports. Having such support can mean the difference in between victory and defeat in prefectures where a move of even 10,000 votes one way or the other makes a huge difference.

The trade off was, of course, the loss of the party proportional support for the DPJ among non-aligned voters. Pandering to the postmasters, while not a crucial issue for most, contributed to the extremely negative image of the Ozawa-dominated DPJ as the party that was willing to grovel for every organizational vote pf the pre-Koizumi era Liberal Democratic Party electoral machine.

On a strategic level, the new Kan government has made it clear that it is abandoning efforts to stimulate economic growth through loosened lending standards -- policies strongly associated with Kamei. Reversal of postal reform was a part of this general reversal of the strictures imposed during the Koizumi era. Reversal of postal reform of course infuriated the nation's private financial institutions, which have quite rightly see the post office as a favored behemoth sucking trillions of yen out of the world's financial system. This in turn earned the DPJ the hostility of the financial press, which, for good or ill, is the primary opinion-shaping information source for much of the world's population.

Postal reform might have been saved if the PNP actually brought something of substance to the DPJ. However, in poll after poll, support for the PNP nevers hits even 1% of those polled. It is the party of zero, of nothing and nowhere. It is indeed such a weak entity that it cannot stomp off in huff, like the Social Democratic Party could do after the sacking of Fukushima Mizuho over the Futenma reversal. Instead, the PNP must cling to the skirts of the DPJ in the hopes of surviving as an official political party.

As for the once powerful Zentoku, it must contend with the consequences of having backed the wrong horses in the race for power in the nation's capital. Kan clearly takes his talking points on the economy and finance from Ministry of Finance bureaucrats and the banking industry -- the enemies of the post office. Zentoku could try to boost the fortunes of the PNP by a full court press to have its members vote for the party in the proportion vote -- but that would result in perhaps one or maybe two more seats for the micro-coalition, which has been, thanks to Kamei's overreaching and interference on many fronts, more of a hindrance than a help to the DPJ. More likely, however, it will free its members to vote as they wish, giving the organization political cover in the likely anti-post office mood that will prevail after the July House of Councillors elections.

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