Quick political hits
Posted by ampontan on Thursday, March 5, 2009
HERE ARE two quick hits on recent events in the world of Japanese politics.
A few posts down the page, I suggested that the Japanese political class might be the dumbest group of people on the planet. I neglected to mention that cowardly should also be on their list of descriptive adjectives.
The lower house of the Diet passed the Aso administration’s stimulus bill and other budget-related legislation yesterday after the ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito muscled up and used their supermajority to reach the required two-thirds margin. The legislation had already been rejected by the opposition-led upper house, necessitating the second vote.
Only two members of the LDP failed to cast a vote for the bills. One was former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro, who didn’t bother showing up after warning recently that he didn’t like the stimulus package. The other was Ono Jiro, a first-term MP from Yamanashi, who left the chamber during the debate.
The votes to pass the bills were cowardly because it’s likely that as many as 100 of the current LDP members in the lower house would have voted against them if they had let their consciences be their guide. But doing so would have required advancing the date for what is shaping up to be a very messy election. Apparently they lack the stomach for the political realignment that will only become more wrenching the longer it is delayed.
This cowardice is nothing new, alas. There were rumblings of a revolt in the LDP over the Fukuda Administration’s gasoline surtax bill last year, but it never materialized. Likewise, the leadership challenge to Ozawa Ichiro by Maehara Seiji and others in the Democratic Party of Japan before last September’s election for the party presidency fizzled more dismally than a damp sparkler in the summer humidity.
Party loyalty in Japan is every bit as rigid as it was in Moscow during the days of the Soviet Politburo. The LDP warned Mr. Ono about his traitorous behavior, but decided to let Mr. Koizumi off the hook due to his past meritorious service. (How magnanimous of them; the former Prime Minister’s meritorious service is the only reason the party is passing legislation with a supermajority today.)
But I’ll have to save any more comments about party unity in Japan for later.
It seems as if opposition leader Ozawa Ichiro will be forced to deal with the fallout from a serious political contribution scandal. One of Mr. Ozawa’s aides and the former president of a construction company already have been arrested and the investigation is ongoing. A former company executive told the special task force charged with looking into the case that the requests for the money came from the Ozawa camp.
Mr. Ozawa denies any wrongdoing, but nobody believes him. Not that he’s any more crooked than anyone else—everyone wearing a Diet membership pin could probably be frog-marched tomorrow down to the pig box, as they say in this country, for similar offenses. Usually the policy of MAD (mutually assured destruction) prevents politicians from using financial irregularities to take down an opponent, if only because they are so vulnerable themselves. But with the opposition on the verge of taking control of the government, some people in the LDP surely realized that serious problems required drastic solutions.
There have been rumors of Ozawa real estate holdings that are suspiciously large for a politician not from a wealthy family, but the DPJ leader had managed to avoid scandals of this sort until now. His long-time association with both Tanaka Kakuei, the Boss Tweed of postwar Japanese politics, and Kanemaru Shin, who was caught with an at-home political war chest that included gold bullion, must have impressed upon him the necessity—and the means—to keep certain secrets well hidden, but now it might have all caught up with him.
Others in the DPJ, including Hatoyama Yukio, are claiming the investigation was politically motivated, and they’re almost certainly right. Mr. Ozawa was a real threat to the LDP’s increasingly tenuous hold on power. But it’s not going to make a whit of difference how right they are if Mr. Ozawa is arrested.
One would think that the combination of the LDP’s problems and this emerging scandal in the opposition would finally stiffen the backbones of reformers in both parties to join forces, pitch a tent on higher ground, and watch the public flock to them, but as I said when I started, there’s no underestimating the stupidity–or the cowardice–of the Japanese political class.
The latest on Mr. Ozawa’s delicate condition is a report in today’s paper that someone involved in the scheme has told the authorities that the construction company in question used a dummy political group to give the DPJ leader 25 million yen a year since about 1995, for an aggregate amount of roughly 3 million yen, or more than US$ 3 million. The objective was for some quid pro quo in getting public works contracts in the Tohoku region, from where Mr. Ozawa hails. It would seem that things do not bode well for him.
If he steps down, the most likely replacement now might be Okada Katsuya, who was the DPJ’s sacrificial lamb during the whipping Koizumi Jun’ichiro administered in 2005. His chief political objective seems to be to establish a viable second political party in Japan, rather than any specific policy. On a scale from 0-100, his charisma factor would be in negative territory.
Political predictions aren’t what I do–such a waste of time, and most of them are wrong anyway–but it will be fascinating to see how this plays out. The worst case scenario would be if this emboldens the LDP’s mudboat wing to think they might somehow be able to salvage the next general election and keep any potential LDP reformers in the fold. Since the LDP still doesn’t control the upper house, this might raise the potential for a grand coalition between the mudboat wings of both parties, much to the detriment of the country and its political system.