Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda was re-elected as leader of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan by a large margin on Sept. 21.
During the three years since the party came to power, the DPJ-led government's performance has been pitifully erratic and inconsistent, marked by a few political achievements and many failures and missteps.
The DPJ's election manifesto, which promised to raise 16.8 trillion yen ($215 million) in new money to finance its policy proposals through a budget reform with massive spending cuts, has become a dead letter.
While the government deserves some credit for enacting legislation to raise the consumption tax, the fact remains that the move was a breach of the party's promise not to increase the tax, a promise made before the Lower House election three years ago.
And though the government took a step in the right direction when it pledged to phase out nuclear power generation by the end of the 2030s in response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster, it is disgraceful that, when faced with criticism from the business community and other pro-nuclear camps, the administration failed to formalize the policy decision with Cabinet approval.
MAINTAIN THE THREE-PARTY AGREEMENT ON REFORM
During his campaign for the party leadership election, Noda touted the agreement on integrated tax and social security reform that the DPJ reached with the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito, billing it as his biggest political achievement.
Noda pursued the three-party deal to ensure that the social security system will remain on stable financial footing even if the governing party changes.
What Noda didn't expect was the decision of LDP President Sadakazu Tanigaki, who was supposed to be Noda's partner in this policy initiative, to abandon his candidacy for his party's leadership election.
Granted, all five lawmakers running for the LDP presidential election have vowed to honor the three-party agreement.
But the integrated reform is not the only major policy challenge that demands effective cooperation among the three parties.
Last month, Noda promised Tanigaki and New Komeito chief Natsuo Yamaguchi that he would seek a fresh popular mandate before long. Such a promise made by a party leader to the heads of other parties should be taken very seriously.
If Noda postpones dissolving the Lower House for a snap election, all trust among the three parties will disappear.
Amid the political confusion that clouded the final days of the most recent Diet session, some important pieces of legislation were killed, including the bill to allow the government to issue deficit-financing bonds and the one to reduce the number of Lower House seats. The confusion was created by the DPJ's highhanded approach to steering Diet business and the passage through the Upper House of an opposition-sponsored censure motion against Noda, which was supported by the LDP.
If the current political gridlock continues, we are likely to see the same spectacle of legislative paralysis again in the next Diet session.
That could cause even the vital reform measures to fall apart.
SEEK VOTERS' VERDICT ON THE CONSUMPTION TAX HIKE
In principle, Lower House members should be allowed to continue doing their jobs until the end of their four-year terms.
But given the current political gridlock, it is hard to make a convincing argument that avoiding an early election would serve the interests of the public.
It is time for Noda, the chief executive of the government, to make the political decision to dissolve the Lower House for a snap election in order to set the nation's policymaking machine in motion again.
The great majority of the DPJ lawmakers, however, are opposed to a dissolution of the Lower House at this moment.
If Noda had made it clear before his party's leadership race when he would call an election, his re-election would have been jeopardized. As a result, his reform initiative could have fallen through.
But Noda can no longer use that excuse for delaying his decision to call an election.
More than anything else, the politically vital fact is that the administration's move to raise the consumption tax is a violation of a key policy promise in the DPJ’s manifesto for the Lower House election in 2009, which brought the party to power.
There is a compelling case for giving voters an opportunity to deliver their verdict on this policy change as soon as possible.
There is, of course, no guarantee that a Lower House election now will break the political deadlock, and the people will be the ones who lose if the major parties remain locked in mutually destructive partisan warfare.
END THE VICIOUS CYCLE
The next Lower House poll should be used as an opportunity to put a stop to this vicious cycle. To that end, let us make a proposal to the prime minister.
Immediately after the LDP elects its new leader, Noda should seek to hold a meeting with the heads of the LDP and New Komeito to make an agreement on taking the following three steps before a dissolution of the Lower House:
First, the three parties should reaffirm their commitment to the three-party deal on integrated tax and social security reform. The new national council on social security reform they agreed to create should be set up immediately.
Second, the three parties should agree to pass, during an autumn extraordinary Diet session, a bill to allow the government to issue deficit-funding bonds as well as one to implement the LDP's proposal to reduce the number of single-seat constituencies in five prefectures, from three to two each. The main opposition's proposal to cut the Lower House seats by five is designed to rectify the significant disparity in the relative weight of a vote between the most and least populous prefectures, which was judged to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
A new advisory council for the prime minister should be set up to discuss various ideas for electoral reform, including further cuts in Diet seats and measures to improve the election system for the Upper House.
And third, the three parties should agree to work together vigorously to develop and establish new rules for managing Diet affairs to prevent divided control of the two houses of the Diet from blocking political agreements on key issues.
The DPJ is not the only party that has incurred the distrust of the public.
The LDP and other opposition parties should realize that Japanese voters now take a dim view of all the mainstream parties.
What is notable about the LDP leadership contest is that Shigeru Ishiba, a former LDP policy chief running for the election, has said the bill to enable the government to issue new debt to finance the budget should not be used as a partisan tool.
First the LDP then the DPJ suffered from the crippling effects of a divided Diet, and Ishiba's remarks apparently echo a desire among many politicians to end the corrosive political gridlock.
Several steps need to be taken to improve the situation.
First, a new rule needs to be established to ensure that a deficit-financing bill is always incorporated into the budget bill.
As for important government appointments that are legally required to be approved by the Diet, the Lower House's decisions should prevail.
And a new system should be introduced to give decision-making power to the joint committee that is set up when the two chambers make different decisions on a bill.
If the ruling and opposition parties strike a deal on a set of such rules for a better legislative performance, the Diet will start doing its job properly.
Such an agreement would also help stop the frequent, almost yearly, changes in prime ministers that have plagued Japanese politics in recent years.
It is imperative for the government to take effective measures to rebuild areas devastated by last year's earthquake and tsunami and deal with the consequences of the nuclear disaster while developing a new energy policy.
It is also urgent for Japan to improve its strained relations with its neighbors.
On top of that, the issue of how to build a new framework for free trade must be settled swiftly.
There is a long list of policy challenges crying out for quick and effective political responses. All the parties need to work hard to develop realistic and convincing campaign platforms for the upcoming general election if they are to win public support for their political agendas.
--The Asahi Shimbun, Sept. 22
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