After nearly three years of frustrating political meandering since the Democratic Party of Japan took over the government in September 2009, the nation finally took a step forward on June 26, when the Lower House passed bills for integrated tax and social security reforms.
In their bid for power, political parties usually stress their differences from their rivals. But this time, the DPJ and the opposition Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito made compromises on an important policy that will directly affect the nation's future. They are assuming joint responsibility, which is significant in itself.
An "act of necessity"
A DPJ group led by former party leader Ichiro Ozawa rejected the bills en masse, effectively splitting the party. Having thus rebelled against Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda who was "staking his political life on the bills," the Ozawa group's only logical course of action would be to leave the party.
We believe Noda and Ozawa have no choice now but to part company.
Under parliamentary democracy, the party that has been elected to power carries out its election pledges. Strictly speaking, the DPJ-LDP-New Komeito framework of cooperation goes against that basic principle of parliamentary democracy.
However, we see the tripartite cooperation as an "act of necessity" for preventing further fruitless government-opposition confrontations and breaking the vicious cycle of political deadlock.
When the DPJ won the 2009 Lower House election, it pledged "no consumption tax hike." But the promise proved to be irresponsible sweet talk when the national debt was pushing 1,000 trillion yen.
Faced with the many constraints stemming from the globalization of the economy and the graying of Japanese society, the government had only limited options in trying to fix the nation's fiscal problems.
The DPJ's ineffectiveness as the ruling party became pronounced after it lost its majority in the Upper House in the 2010 election. The woes of a divided Diet had also dogged the LDP administrations of Yasuo Fukuda and Taro Aso for two years before the party tumbled from power.
Prime ministers have changed every year over the last five years, and both the LDP and the DPJ have paid dearly for it. The newly forged DPJ-LDP-New Komeito collaboration on the tax and social security reform bills is an outcome of that messy history.
Refrain from logrolling, political strife
How long the tripartite collaboration will last is anyone's guess.
The current term of Lower House legislators will expire in a little over a year from now, and an Upper House election is slated for next summer.
As elections approach, political parties usually begin to exaggerate their differences from their rivals and engage in heavy-duty mudslinging.
In fact, the LDP is already clamoring for an early dissolution of the Lower House followed by a snap election, taking advantage of the Noda administration's weakened footing due to the Ozawa group's rebellion.
The LDP must not repeat the folly of bringing government to a grinding halt by starting a political war that will have no benefits for the public.
But there is also the opposite fear of the three parties staying together and capitalizing on their joint strength in numbers to lead the nation in a direction they want. There are signs of this already happening.
In negotiating amendments to proposed nuclear regulation bills, the DPJ, the LDP and New Komeito added a clause that could effectively take the teeth out of the existing provision for decommissioning nuclear reactors after they have been in operation for 40 years.
The three parties also added a new clause to the Atomic Energy Basic Law that says to the effect that one purpose of the use of nuclear energy is for a "security guarantee."
Simply put, the parties have amended the nation's "nuclear policy Constitution" in the absence of any public discussion.
In the meantime, the LDP has proposed a bill for spending 15 trillion yen over three years on road construction and other projects. A bill of this nature is definitely a throwback to the old days when money was squandered on public works projects. Will the DPJ have the backbone to stop this?
The three-party collaboration is a double-edged sword. The parties must work together where necessary, but without political logrolling. We hope they will start building a political culture that befits the present age.
Lay groundwork for general election
A number of pressing issues require immediate political attention, including a bill for the issuance of deficit-covering government bonds, which has remained on the back burner for too long. Another is the vote-value disparity among Lower House electorates that has been judged unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. The Diet must settle these issues without delay during the extended session.
The three parties have agreed to discuss the nation's social security policy on "kokumin kaigi" (citizens' forum) for one year. This is a good way to share political responsibility and ensure continuity in discussions of various issues, even in the event of a change of government.
There is also the need to further advance debate on issues that affect Japan's future, such as its nuclear energy policy, trade liberalization and recovery and reconstruction from the Great East Japan Earthquake. Talks have been shelved on these issues because of the political skirmishes over the consumption tax hike bills.
The integrated tax and social security reforms are certainly necessary, but it is true that the DPJ has reneged on its campaign promise to the people not to raise the consumption tax. The party at the time pledged to "generate 16.8 trillion yen in new revenue sources by reworking the national budget." It is clear now that the very basis of the campaign pledge was pure fantasy.
Naturally, there are calls for an early dissolution of the Lower House so that the public can decide the DPJ's fate.
But unless the vote disparity issue is resolved, a snap election cannot be held. It will take at least a few months for the electorates to be redrawn and the public to become familiar with the new electoral map.
Each party must hasten to lay the groundwork for the next general election. In the meantime, the parties must also rework their campaign messages and ensure their promised programs are solidly funded.
Discussions on the "citizens' forum" may be only at the halfway point, but each party can assert its policy in its election manifesto.
--The Asahi Shimbun, June 27
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