Friday, March 02, 2012

Just What The Heck Did They Think They Were Doing?

Yesterday, a leak of huge proportions sailed through the halls of Nagata-cho, the home of Japan's national legislature and the various offices attached to the prime minister: PM Noda Yoshihiko and head of the opposition, Liberal Democratic Party President Tanigaki Sadakazu, had had a secret one-on-one meeting in a Tokyo hotel on February 25. (E)

Both men inexplicably denied that the meeting had taken place. While certainly both of them face very difficult reelection campaigns in the fall -- ones where they will be challenged by forces within their parties extremely unhappy with the way each has been handling party and Diet affairs -- and the news of a secret meeting would only inflame the passions of those opposed to their respective party leaderships --denying what everyone knew to be true seems, at this point, the height of folly.

Just what the two could have been discussing in secret is the subject of wild speculation. The most common supposition is that the two were discussing a quid pro quo: passage of the bill raising the consumption tax in return for an early dissolution of the Diet. This "discussion dissolution" (hanashiai kaisan) has been a favorite proposal of LDP party elders and conservative members of the commentariat in recent weeks. That the LDP had been chattering about it so much was unsurprising, given that the period of time during which the prime minister could dissolve the Diet and call and election without provoking a constitutional crisis was rapidly closing.

Unfortunately for this theory, the timing of the meeting does not neatly match up with the schedule of the constitutional problem with a House of Representatives election. The meeting was held in the evening on February 25. This was also the last day that the House of Representatives could be dissolved without an unchallengeable unconstitutionality of the current electoral map. Basically, the two would have to agree with a three-step process: the passage of a bill fixing the unconstitutionality of the electoral map, then bring together elements of each of their two parties together to vote for the tax increase, followed by a Noda's exercising his right to unilaterally dissolve the Diet. Seeing as neither Noda nor Tanigaki has enough support within his party to drag their colleagues into this scheme -- the DPJ's proposed reform of the House of Representatives cutting far too many of the House of Representatives' proportional seats for the LDP's ally the New Komeito to swallow -- made the entire subject moot.

If the two were not talking about a hanashiai kaisan over the consumption tax, what could they have been talking about? Another line of speculation is that Noda was testing Tanigaki's willingness to fashion a broad, even if only a loose, coalition government of fiscal conservatives to oppose the internal challenge Noda faces from Ozawa Ichiro. With the tossing out of the most damning piece of evidence in Ozawa's accounting irregularities trial on February 17, Ozawa has been on a tear to reestablish himself as the most important power broker within the DPJ. In his most stunning step outside the boundaries of his comfort zone, he agreed to a long interview with The Asahi Shimbun, outlining his opposition to nearly everything the Noda government is trying to achieve. Since Ozawa agrees to mainstream media interviews less frequently than Japan changes prime ministers, this was a sign that he feels himself now nearly bulletproof in intra-party infighting, even as his membership in the DPJ remains formally under suspension. Given his propensity to take his followers out of a party when he feels slighted, and that so many of the DPJ's first-termers and even middle-ranking members are terrified that a rise in the consumption tax condemns them to electoral annihilation, the number of folks Ozawa could take with him has swelled from the estimates of 50 or so prevalent a few months ago. He could conceivably take half the DPJ with him, given the results of the September 2010 leadership election between Ozawa and Kan Naoto. (J)

Whatever the two may have been discussing, that they should meet should not be such a big deal. Leaders meet in secret all the time, feeling out where the other really wants go out, away from the extremism that the camera lights bring out in every politician. This is particularly the case for Tanigaki, who has been forced to cling to a hopeless strategy of saying "No" to everything the DPJ has proposed, a stance which has exasperated certain of the clearer thinking members of the LDP. True, meeting in secret just four days before the two were heading into a clash of the titans Question Time session looks like match-fixing. However, given the way that Prime Minister Noda pummeled Tanigaki in the February 29 session, it seems hardly likely the pair had agreed to treat each other with kid gloves.

So why the denials regarding the meeting? Credibility is a far more precious currency than consistency. So you went behind your colleagues' back to find out what the other side is willing to give up -- so what? Lying in public -- that is fatal.

There was in a time when if the Chief Cabinet Secretary, the government's main spokesman, would say something is true or not true, that was the end of the discussion. Secret agreements on the return of Okinawa to Japanese sovereignty? They do not exist. But there are copies in the U.S. National Archives! That is irrelevant, they do not exist.

We do not live in such a time anymore. Indeed, under the DPJ-led coalition government, the heretofore non-existent Okinawa agreements were shown to have existed. That something was secret cannot be denied when the secret gets out.

So for the increasingly pathetic and irrelevant Fujimura Osamu to insist that the meeting never took place is the pretty much same as a confimation that it did.

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