Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Different Kind of Opposition

A few days ago, at a reunion of his high school classmates who had come up to Tokyo from Yamaguchi Prefecture, Prime Minister Kan talked about the rough treatment he has been forced to withstand from the opposition as prime minister. “Did I say such terrible things [about my opponents] when I was in the opposition?...I guess maybe I did. If so, it cannot be helped,” he sighed.

No, Mr. Prime Minister, you were not as rough on your opponents. Indeed, your whole party was not as rough.

One of the underreported stories of the Democratic Party of Japan’s time in power has been the bloody-minded irresponsibility of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party. While the LDP’s inability to stymie government action prior to the 2010 House of Councillors election covered over and indeed muted the LDP’s tendencies and actions, since that election and the shift in power it created the LDP and its co-conspirator the New Komeito have been bent on simply gutting or killing any DPJ initiative. Whatever the House of Representatives passes, the House of Councillors delays. In Question Time or in Diet Committee interpellations (in particular those of the Budget Committee), the LDP and the New Komeito ignore current issues to range all over the map in quests against imagined corruption of government officials, the prime minister’s personal responsibility for worsening the Fukushima nuclear disaster or other such quixotica.

Did the Democrats not do the same when they were in the opposition and held control of the House of Councillors? Yes, of course they did. However, the crucial difference was that the Democrats in their questioning would be lashing out in frustration against the then ruling LDP’s willingness to even talk to the Democrats about upcoming legislation, or later on for the LDP’s cowardice at not calling an election. Slapping the prime minister and the Cabinet around in committee always had the goal of reminding the LDP that it had a real opposition to deal with, not some cardboard group of naysayers receiving payments under the table as during the era of the 1955 System, when the Socialists were the main opposition. What the Democrats seeking was reasonable behavior from the ruling coalition – a Sisyphean endeavor perhaps as the LDP had lost all legitimacy as a ruling party and was, during its last three years in power, merely kicking the ball around on its half of the playing field.

What has been lacking in reporting on Diet seikyoku (political maneuvering, as opposed to seiji, politics) is the knee-jerk naysaying of the LDP and New Komeito to anything the DPJ passed before July 2010 or is proposing today. Like Grumpy in Disney's Snow White, the LDP’s and New Komeito's response to whatever comes up from the House of Representatives is an ignorant “I don’t know, but I’m again’ ‘em.”

In a search for equivalents during the previous era, when the Democrats were out of power but in control of the House of Councillors, one could perhaps point to Democrat’s successful, albeit temporary, halting of the Indian Ocean refueling mission. There Democratic stalling could be interpreted as simple negation for the sake of being negative, without regard to the national weal.

However, in the case of the refueling mission, it had become, by the time the Democrats managed to interrupt it, no longer a demonstration of Japan’s commitment to its alliance with the United States or a commitment to the international fight against terrorism, but indeed a constitutionally questionable replacement for actual commitment to either. “We are refueling ships in the Indian Ocean so we’re in the loop” was cooperation on the cheap when Japan desperately needed to be doing more, or at least debating about doing something more. Ozawa Ichiro indeed called the government’s bluff on the refueling mission when he proposed its replacement with a “boots-on-the-ground” deployment of the Self Defense Forces in Afghanistan under United Nations auspices.

A demonstration of the crucial difference between the way the two parties have behaved in opposition is the current fight over the renewable energy bill. The bill, one of the three (now two, since the House of Councillors overwhelmingly voted for the second supplementary budget) bills Prime Minister Kan has said must pass before he is willing to step down, has really nothing in it that any conscionable opposition would oppose, especially in the light of the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station. Public support for the bill is high, with 78% of respondents in favor of it, according to the most recent Kyodo News poll.

Nevertheless, the leadership of the LDP in the House of Councillors will not even consider bringing the bill to committee, for whatever reason. LDP Diet Affairs Chaiman Waki Masashi says that he will not allow his members to cooperate with any bills coming from the Kan Cabinet, except for those pertaining to the reconstruction and revival of the northeast. LDP Deputy Policy Research Council Chairman Yamamoto Ichita has cried out, with crocodile tears, “We are in the midst of debating energy policy within our own party. Until our direction on this is resolved, we cannot be considering revisions.”

Translation: if Kan wants to resign after this bill is voted on, then he will just have to wait, him and his party twisting in the wind.

The Democrats in opposition played hardball but they still played. The LDP and the New Komeito, they are just sitting on their hands, with delay after delay after delay, even when the prime minister tells them they will not get their wish for an immediate House of Representatives election.

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