Thursday, October 28, 2010

The DPJ's Completely Muddled Money Message

In something of a surprise announcement, Democratic Party of Japan Secretary-General Katsuya Okada revealed on Tuesday that the party was repealing its self-imposed ban on receiving political donations from corporations and organized groups.

DPJ to reaccept corporate cash
Kyodo News

The Democratic Party of Japan will resume accepting corporate donations in the face of financial difficulties, a senior lawmaker of the ruling party said Tuesday.

DPJ Secretary General Katsuya Okada said the party has to partially relax its policy of voluntarily refraining from receiving contributions from businesses amid increasing complaints from its parliamentarians that a lack of funds is hampering their political activities.

Okada said at a meeting of DPJ executives that such a relaxation is unavoidable, given that the party has not received contributions from individuals on the scale that it had hoped since taking the reins of the government about one year ago...

It can be argued that the total effects of Okada's announcement are minimal. The DPJ's self-imposed ban was a legacy of a decision made in January by the Secretary-General Ozawa Ichiro in what was clearly a public relations stunt trying to draw attention away from his and then Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio's stunning political funding scandal problems. Revoking the total ban was merely reversing a decision that had been made out of political desperation and cynicism.

Furthermore, the DPJ is staying true to its promise in its Manifesto to not accept political donation from companies with with public works contracts with the central government totaling more than 100 million yen. This was the same ban it proposed as a bill when it was in the opposition in 2009. Had that had bill passed, it would be a rule covering all parties, rather than a unilateral and still continuing commitment by the DPJ.

Furthermore, the DPJ has a darn good reason to ask for corporate and organizational donations: it needs the money. Cash from individual contributors has been so far insufficient to move the DPJ away from its longtime dependency on public funding of political parties. The party currently receives 80% of its funding for its political activities from the public elections support fund. By contrast, its main rival, the Liberal Democratic Party, which has no similar restraints on the types of cash it is willing to imbibe, relies on the public elections support for only half of its funding. One (decidedly minor) explanation for the severity of the DPJ's defeat in this summer's House of Councillors election was that its local chapters were simply outspent by their LDP rivals.

This explanation, if valid, looms large over next year's unified local elections, where the DPJ would like to hold its ground, if not indeed win a few prizes from out of the hands of the LDP. If the party does not have the funds, however, it will not have the wherewithal either to make much headway against the LDP's incumbents nor defend its performance as a party. The DPJ is, after all, the party in power on the national level: it cannot run on the low-cost message of "Change" that it could rely on during the years it was in opposition on the national scene. On the local level it will have to compete nose-to-nose, candidate versus candidate against a still vital local LDP base, with the LDP having the ability to raise funds from anywhere.

In politics, however, much depends on timing -- and Okada's timing of his announcement was lousy. Only three days earlier the DPJ lost its seat it had held in the Hokkaido District #5, where the DPJ incumbent had been forced to resign her due to illegal campaign contributions by the Hokkaido Teacher's Union At the same time the Diet is aswirl with rumors on whether or not the DPJ will buckle under to opposition pressure to have Ozawa Ichiro be summoned to give testimony in the Diet or be forced to put in an appearance before the Diet's Ethics Committee, with Ozawa's coming indictment looming over the proceedings.

Announcing a reversal a self-imposed ban on accepting certain types of political donations at this precise moment was, at best, untimely.

What garbles the message further is that despite the announcement of the reversal of the total ban for now, the DPJ remains committed to another of its Manifesto promises that will reimpose the ban universally through legislation, effective in three years' time.

The response to the Okada announcement was predictably negative. The Tokyo Shimbun carried a front page analysis denouncing the reversal as "a betrayal of the public trust." LDP Secretary-General Ishihara Nobuteru said that reversing its position on corporate and organization donations at time when "money and politics" has been a major topic shows the DPJ is bent on creating "a complete and total mess." Your Party leader Watanabe Yoshimi simply dismissed the DPJ, with a "Here we go again, saying something and not following through on it. When what you say and what you do diverge, that just accelerates mistrust in politics."

Even among his fellow Democrats, Okada's announcement was derided. "At a time when 'money and politics' are so much in the news, this is hardly a plus," intoned Chief Cabinet Secretary Sengoku Yoshito.

Business, which would be expected to pony up some cash to help underwrite the DPJ's chances in the unified local elections, is understandably ticked off by the DPJ's seeming triple standard, and thus unlikely to return Okada's sudden expressions of affection. Rejecting corporate donations, then saying the party will accept them, only to make them illegal for everyone at a later time is hardly the way to show businesses that the DPJ really holds their interests and opinions to be of lasting value.

What is most unfortunate about Okada's announcement is that it only further whittles away the DPJ's identity. One of the founding myths of the DPJ, one it has cultivated and clung to over the years, is that it is the "clean politics" party -- as opposed to the LDP, the party which found the mix of corporate cash, budgetary pork and fairly blatant vote buying downright cozy. Even after the arrests of Ozawa Ichiro's aides on accounting violations involving the Rikuzankai political fundraising group, opinion polls still showed the public believing that the DPJ represented clean politics.

This latest announcement makes a complete muddle of that message, one that gave the people so much hope in August 2009, when they finally and decisively turfed the LDP out in favor of the DPJ.

The bungled Okada announcement may just be a tempest in a teapot--but the DPJ and Okada in particular simply have to start looking a little sharper...and I do not mean Ren Ho in Vogue Nippon sharp.

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