Friday, April 25, 2008

Counting down to X-Day

With less than a week until 30 April — "X-Day" — when the government intends to bring the tax bill to a vote in the HR again, the DPJ is apparently stepping away from threats to censure the government in response to the revote.

Kan Naoto indicated at a press conference Thursday that the party has yet to decide how it will respond to the expected reinstatement of the temporary gasoline tax, noting that there is a discussion underway about whether a censure motion will pressure the government into dissolving the HR and calling a general election.

This should come as no surprise. It became clear last fall that despite being able to pass non-binding censure motions, the HC is largely powerless when it comes to resisting a government armed with a two-thirds majority in the HR. For all the complaints from the LDP about how irresponsible the DPJ has been acting, the government has still been able to get what it wants through the Diet, even if it has to wait sixty days on occasion (which would be less of a problem if the government planned better).

The DPJ's only ally in its fight against the government is public opinion. The public's ambivalence about the MSDF refueling mission meant that the DPJ was impotent in the face of the government's determination to restart the mission. Will the same dynamic apply next week?

Both parties are keenly watching how public opinion breaks in the days between the by-election in Yamaguchi-2 on 27 April and the HR vote on 30 April. As Sato Hiroya suggests:
Whether the LDP wins or loses, if there's a narrow margin, the LDP will likely go ahead and forcibly pass this bill again. However, if the LDP candidate loses by an unexpectedly large margin, it is likely that it will not be easy for the LDP to take the strong step of passing it again on the 30th.
In short, the government will conclude that the political consequences of the temporary tax are negligible and proceed as planned. A close and/or victorious election will stand in for the numerous opinion polls showing opposition to the temporary tax.

Pushing forward with the tax bill does, however, entail some risk to the government, particularly if public opposition translates into a vocal backlash following the bill's second passage.

It's possible that the situation is not as dire for the Fukuda government as it appears. Yamamoto Ichita thinks that both the potential rebels within the LDP and the DPJ are full of bluster but will ultimately fail to deliver: the rebels will fall into line and vote with the party, the DPJ will not pass a censure motion in the HC, and the government will get its way on the two votes (the tax bill vote next week, and the road construction bill sometime in May). In short, the government will survive this crisis by acting resolutely and not wavering.

As suggested above, he may be right about the DPJ. I'm still not convinced, however, that the LDP has stifled the rebellion, especially if Sunday results in a DPJ landslide, an entirely plausible outcome.

That's the flaw in Mr. Yamamoto's "election avoidance syndrome" theory. Of course elected officials would prefer to put off an election for as long as possible. But they would also like to win the election when it comes. Given a choice between taking an action that might bolster their electoral prospects at the risk of hastening a general election, which instinct wins out? If a DPJ landslide provides a clear illustration for LDP HR members of their vulnerability in a general election, will they be as inclined to vote again for a measure opposed by an overwhelming majority of the public?

In short, an overwhelming DPJ victory in Yamaguchi-2 could have far greater impact on how the government proceeds than the threat of a censure motion ever could.

3 comments:

Quite Frankly said...

What a bathetic use of the phrase 'X Day.' I remember it being used in 1988 to denote the date that Emperor Hirohito was to die. Otherwise, a fascinating and timely post, as ever.

Japan Observer said...

Thank you.

I wouldn't have used it myself, but Sato Hiroya used it in his article, so I borrowed it.

Bryce said...

A few days ago it was reported on NHK that oil companies were going to raise prices to coincide with the tax re-increase, so the increase will be around 30 yen, not 25. A case of oil companies taking the opportunity to raise prices now because they know that the blame will be laid with the government, perhaps.

While the gas tax will hit pockets around the nation, aside from any extra costs the oil companies add, isn't it just a return to the status quo? While the average Japanese motorist might compalain for a few days that petrol is more expensive than it has been for weeks, aren't they used to paying the original cost for gas anyway? Gas is pretty cheap in Japan anyway. In terms of the developed world, it is only when you compare it to the crazy-low prices in the U.S. that it could ever be viewed as expensive, even with the 25 yen surcharge.

In any case, censure motions should rightly be ignored. In Japan's parliamentary system, "censure" by the opposition is supposed to happen every time the house meets. The only censure motion that counts is a vote of no confidence.