Thursday, November 22, 2007

The elusive rules of the game

Prime Minister Fukuda held another meeting with Ozawa Ichiro and the heads of the other opposition parties on Thursday.

Unlike the last meeting, nothing of note occurred — perhaps the other leaders were there to forestall a "corrupt bargain" between Messrs. Fukuda and Ozawa — and the LDP and the DPJ appear to be no closer to establishing the rules of the game for a divided Diet.

The editorials of the major dailies blame Mr. Ozawa for standing in the way of compromises on, "many things that should be done." (Believe it or not, that's in the headline of Asahi's editorial, not Yomiuri's.) Mainichi, while recognizing that both sides need to work together to make policy on behalf of Japan, singled out Mr. Ozawa for not taking a position amenable to cooperation on the new decision making rules, calling it "regrettable."

Yomiuri, not surprisingly, has the most strident tone in criticizing the DPJ: "Under the divided Diet, the DPJ, as the largest party in the House of Councillors, bears great responsibility in driving the political situation...However, on the DPJ's side, one cannot see them bearing this responsibility." The editorial goes on to criticize the party's irresponsibility at length for opposing the anti-terror law without passing alternate legislation, and raises the prospect of a "a debate on the uselessness of the House of Councillors."

Sankei largely echoes Yomiuri and Mainichi, and Asahi devotes most of its attention to the LDP and its agenda, but the common thread running through these editorials is dissatisfaction with gridlock.

I do think that the blame falls on the DPJ's shoulders. Had the party — and Mr. Ozawa — been more flexible on foreign policy questions, upon which the political debate is now focused, the DPJ could have pressured the LDP to approve all or most of the DPJ's domestic plans in exchange for the DPJ's assent to the MSDF refueling mission. But Mr. Ozawa has refused to give on anything, instead staking out a hardline position and hoping that the LDP will bend to his will. When push comes to shove, Mr. Fukuda and the LDP control a supermajority in the Lower House, and should public dissatisfaction (or, perhaps more accurately, media dissatisfaction masked as public dissatisfaction) grow, the DPJ will lose. The fact remains that the DPJ needs the LDP more than vice versa. I think the DPJ has completely mishandled the current Diet session. Even while compromising with the government on the anti-terror law, the DPJ could have criticized the LDP for ignoring the concerns of the public — which are overwhelmingly domestic, "lifestyle" issues — and for serving as the tool of the Bush administration. By holding its nose and supporting the MSDF mission, the DPJ could have refocused discussion on domestic policy issues, to its advantage, I think.

Now, in the wake of the meeting, it seems that talk is growing both of yet another Diet extension and a snap election. The former step will be necessary if, as I suspected (as in this post), the DPJ uses its control of the Upper House to delay action on the anti-terror law. Remember that according to the constitution, if the Upper House takes no action within sixty days — not counting days out of session — the bill is considered rejected, giving the Lower House the opportunity to pass it again. Should the bill be passed in this manner, however, a snap election could be unavoidable; Mainichi suggests that an Upper House censure motion would follow Lower House "re-passage" of the bill, leading to a general election. (I still disagree with the assumption that an Upper House censure motion against the government will necessarily lead to a snap election, but I recognize that it is a plausible outcome.)

Whatever the difficulties ahead for Mr. Fukuda as the debate over the MSDF mission reaches a climax, whatever the problems associated with corruption at the Defense Ministry, the DPJ has squandered its advantages — and, for the moment anyway, the prime minister may be enjoying a slight boost thanks to two successful foreign trips. It is not at all clear how this Diet session will wrap up, but as MTC suggests, Mr. Fukuda has not faltered in the face of adversity.


Janne Morén said...

You state that the DPJ should compromise on the refueling mission in order to push through its domestic agenda. But the DPJ domestic agenda is to all intents and purposes the same as LDP; they're basically two public fractions of the same party after all. The only substantive policy difference _is_ the refueling mission (and the larger issue of Japans international role). So you are saying DPJ should drop the only policy issue that they can agree on in order to get more of what they'd get anyway? If they give in to LDP on this issue then what is the point of DPJ even existing?

How about: LDP gives on the only non-negotiable high-profile issue for DPJ in exchange for a smooth passage of their common domestic agenda?

Japan Observer said...

I don't think the DPJ and LDP domestic agendas are as identical as you assume. There are real differences, admittedly both within and between parties, about whether a tax increase is necessary, whether and how a national welfare system should be maintained, regulations of political activities, and so on. The less the parties discuss these issues, however, the more similar they seem.

Rolf said...

Agree with Japan observer.