October 18, 2012
Japanese politics has been wallowing in unprecedented disarray since this summer, even by its normally cryptic standards among industrial democracies. Bills to effect the integrated reforms of the tax and social security systems—the top item on Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s political agenda—were enacted on August 10, following a meeting between Noda and President Sadakazu Tanigaki of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party. In exchange for support from the LDP and New Komeito, the prime minister promised to dissolve the Diet and call a general election “sometime soon” ( chikai uchi ni ). This agreement ostensibly enabled the prime minister to achieve a hike in the consumption tax while also catering to opposition demands for an early House of Representatives election—a contest that most political observers predict will result in a victory and return to power for the LDP.
Confusion soon erupted, though, over the exact meaning of chikai uchi ni . Noda earlier pledged to seek the public’s confidence “in the near future” ( chikai shorai ) if and when the reform bills were passed. The LDP countered that the wording was too vague, prompting Noda to promise a poll chikai uchi ni . The LDP interpreted this to mean that the prime minister would dissolve the Diet by the end of the current regular Diet session on September 8. Such expectations were betrayed, as Noda has yet to dissolve the lower house.
Politicians are known to finagle their way out of tough situations with ambiguous language, and the rhetorical sleight of hand Noda pulled off was a prime example. The difference between chikai shorai and chikai uchi ni is something most Japanese people would be hard pressed to explain. In other words, they can be interpreted in any number of ways.
Shortly after the Noda-Tanigaki tête-à-tête, LDP Secretary General Toshiteru Ishihara explained the difference between the two phrases using English translations, contending that chikai shorai meant “in the near future” and that chikai uchi ni was “as soon as possible.” This, he said, showed that Noda would actively seek a prompt dissolution. Obviously, such an interpretation was nothing more than wishful thinking.
Given the clamoring for a snap election within the ranks of the LDP, Tanigaki went into the meeting with Noda intent on driving the prime minister into a corner. By accepting the vaguely worded promise, though, he allowed Noda to postpone the dissolution, triggering criticism from his LDP colleagues and preventing him from even standing for reelection as party president. The September 26 vote for the top LDP post was won by Shinzo Abe, who returned to the post he had held while serving as prime minister from September 2006 to September 2007. The LDP rejected Tanigaki, who toiled to bolster the party’s fortunes during its opposition years, choosing instead to seek a comeback under a “déjà-vu” leader.
Crumbling from Within
The Democratic Party of Japan, too, held an election for party president in September, which Noda handily won. This is not to suggest that he enjoys broad support within the party, however, as the consumption tax bill has created a deep schism and caused many members to revolt, the most prominent being former President Ichiro Ozawa. As soon as the tax and social security reform bills cleared the lower house in early July, he and 49 other DPJ Diet members bolted the party to launch the People’s Life First party. Ozawa, known for creating then destroying political parties in the pursuit of power, was once again at the center of a drama that threatened to topple the Noda administration. The number of defections has continued to mount since then, moreover; while the DPJ captured 309 seats in the 2009 general election, it held only 247 as of October 1—just barely above the majority of 240. Several more members may soon jump ship, pushing the Noda cabinet into minority government status.
Noda’s approval rating is now hovering just above 20% owing to the unpopular tax hike and discord in his own party. Even more serious is the approval rating for the DPJ; support for the LDP has recovered to above 30%, but that for the DPJ has dipped below 15%. If a general were to be held today, the DPJ would most certainly tumble from power.
Another complicating factor is the abnormally strong public support for Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto. While initially launched as a local party of Osaka municipal and prefectural assembly members, his now national Japan Restoration Party is preparing to field candidates in districts nationwide in the next general election. Hoping to jump on the Hashimoto bandwagon, many incumbent Diet members, as well as hundreds of would-be politicians have been endearing themselves to the Osaka mayor. Although the party’s popularity has recently declined somewhat, the JRP is nonetheless expected to capture around 50 seats in the upcoming election.
Under the circumstances, Noda clearly wants to put off dissolving the lower house as long as possible. Naturally, he does not want to call an election that he knows he is going to lose. He may be hoping that his party’s prospects will have recovered by the time the current lower house term expires in August 2013. Things, however, will not be so easy.
A Government Shutdown?
One major worry is that legislation prescribing the issuance of deficit-covering bonds for fiscal 2012 has yet to be enacted. The budget itself has passed, but the bonds needed to finance it cannot be issued without passage of this special bill. The size this year’s budget is approximately 90 trillion yen, of which 38 trillion yen is to be financed with bonds. Unless the Diet authorizes their issuance soon, government agencies will face a shortage of funds. The Ministry of Finance maintains that expenditures can be covered with tax revenues through October, but there could be a government shutdown—as has happened in the United States—thereafter if the deficit-covering bonds are held hostage to partisan politics.
To pass the bond bill, an extraordinary Diet session would have to be convened. As soon as such a session opens, though, the opposition parties could submit a nonconfidence motion against the prime minister in the hopes of forcing the dissolution of the lower house. The motion, which takes precedence over the bond bill, could pass should a few more DPJ legislators decide to defect, at which point the Noda cabinet would either have to resign en masse or dissolve the lower house. An extraordinary Diet session, in other words, would only hasten the DPJ’s downfall. Without the bond bill, though, the government would sooner or later come to a halt, and the life of the nation would be seriously disrupted.
Needless to say, Japan is not the only country where politicians are wont to take whatever position will help them win the next election. But this does not condone the blatant disregard of what is in Japan’s best interests while everyone from the party leadership down to the rank and file simply looks out for their own political fortunes.
The only way forward is for Noda and LDP President Shinzo Abe to sit down and agree on passing the all-important bond bill and dissolving the Diet at a time that is agreeable to the two sides. If necessary, the two leaders can also agree to work together on drafting a supplementary budget for the current fiscal year or in formulating next fiscal year’s budget. The country needs the pooling of political forces to ride out the current crisis. The petty partisan bickering can wait until the immediate challenges have been resolved.