Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Usual Suspects; The Usual Outcome?

They were supposed to wrap things up on Friday but they could not come to an agreement.

They were supposed to come up with some neat ideas over the weekend to patch up the yawning fissure in between the two sides. However, there were no realistic ideas, just a lot of wishes expressed.

Monday was supposed to be the day when the final offers were can guess the outcome.

Finally, in the wee hours of this morning, the chair of the Democratic Party of Japan ad hoc committee trying to forge an intra-party consensus on the conditions for the raising of the consumption tax declared the debate over. Those opposed to the raising of the consumption tax raised a fuss...but that is what they were going to do anyway.

So the drafting of the final language of the bill is handed over to (ichinin suru) Policy Research Council Chairman Maehara Seiji, which is tantamount to this multi-week debate's never having taken place.

The Noda Yoshihiko led-executive did offer some last minute concessions. The first was the mentioning of economic growth targets in the body of the bill as a necessary consideration for reconsideration of the appropriateness of the timing of the tax rise, without actually having those targets serve as triggers. What was promised was sort of "It would be nice if we have nominal growth of 3% and real growth of 2% when the tax is raised. It we do not have these levels of growth we will be vewy, vewy sad." Opponents to the tax rise have been demanding the numerical triggers. They were, shall we say, less than impressed at the leadership's offer.

The other concession was the elimination of the article in the bill which left the door open for further raising of the consumption tax beyond 10% after 2014. Both sides of the debate, however, knew from the outset that that particular article was a sacrificial lamb, so its elimination is more an insult than a concession.

So the bill is set for approval by the Cabinet this Friday, meeting a deadline set in a 2009 bill for reforms of the consumption tax. Will the anti-tax group, most of whom are either supporters or past supporters of splitists (borrowing the Chinese pejorative) Ozawa Ichiro and Hatoyama Yukio, go so far as to break away from the DPJ?


Why say that with such conviction? These folks have been staying up late (last night's session lasted 7 hours), night after night, doing their darndest to stymie the leadership from offering to the Diet its own version of the bill.

Yes, and after all that effort, they did not manage to do diddly, did they?

Let us surmise that this was a debate with a pre-determined outcome, a pantomime show put on for the benefit of those either hoping for

1) a break up of the DPJ,
2) a halt in the raising of the consumption tax,
3) evidence of real, considered policy debate within the ruling party,
4) an intra-party political drama keeping the Liberal Democratic Party and the New Komeito off the nation's TV screens and political news pages, or
5) any combination of the previous four elements.

The first hint that this was a set piece was the players. In a real debate, there would be twists and turns, unforeseen heroes, impromptu memorable quips. However, in this show, we saw the same seven characters:

Policy Research Chairman Maehara Seiji
Tax Committee Chairman Fujii Haruhisa

in the pro-tax corner

Azuma Shozo (now with a beard)
Kawauchi Hiroshi
Yamada "Mr. No To Everything" Masahiko

in the anti-tax corner

with Ozawa Ichiro and Hatoyama Yukio catcalling in from undisclosed locations, never from within the confines of the committee room itself (the place was packed last night, with 200 legislators attending)

saying the same darned things one would expect them to say.

The second hint was that this debate was framed as an "Ozawa vs. the Leadership" smackdown. By now we should have learned that when push comes to shove, Ozawa does not have the numbers to back up his either dominating the DPJ or breaking it. The closest he came was in September of 2010, when he ran directly against Kan Naoto for the post of party leader. At least among the Diet membership, Ozawa came tantalizingly close to beating Kan in the voting. The takeaway from that date, however, is that despite having so much of the present membership of the Diet indebted to him for their seats, he still failed to win a majority of the votes of the Diet membership. As for the votes of the assembly members and the party supporters, Ozawa got snowed under.

When Ozawa had the chance, nine months later, to put Kan away by leading his followers in voting "yes" for an LDP-sponsored no-confidence motion, he demurred, not even bothering to show up at the Diet chamber for the vote.

So when the fight is billed "Ozawa vs. the powers that be" we should be suspicious, even with the big dog about to slip his leash.

Of course, there is a major problem looming for the leadership: Kamei Shizuka's opposition to the consumption tax hike. Friday's Cabinet approval has to be unanimous. If the People's New Party's representative in the Cabinet, Financial Services Minister Jimi Shozaburo (who is kind of busy right now) does not vote for the proposal, it cannot be offered to the Diet as a government bill. Oddly, the commentariat is largely silent on the possibility that Noda will have to fire Jimi in the same way as Hatoyama had to fire Consumer Affairs Minister Fukushima Mizuho when she refused to sign off on the Futenma-to-Henoko decision. If Noda fires Jimi, then the PNP will likely follow the Democratic Socialists out of the government.

While the departure of the PNP would not mean much for the Noda government in terms of lost votes in the Diet, the optics of such a break up would be poor.

Since Kamei has been talking on and on about the establishment of a new "true conservative" party, however, it is possible that the PNP is already dead. Jimi can thus be ready to vote "yes" for the bill on Friday, making the PNP's moribund state official, and allowing Noda to move on to the next phase: corralling either the LDP or the New Komeito into voting for the bill.

No comments: