Among the various points of contention in the July 10 House of Councillors election, there is only one issue on which Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says he is seeking a public mandate: his decision to delay the consumption tax hike once again.
The prime minister asserts that he's seeking public approval through the upper house poll because his decision runs counter to his earlier pledge that the sales tax would be raised in April 2017 from the current 8 percent to 10 percent regardless of economic conditions.
The coming election is highly crucial, as people's future livelihoods and the country's position will greatly hinge on how voters hit back the ball that the prime minister has tossed to them.
The consumption tax hike that had been scheduled for April 2017 was essential in preparing for an ultra-aging society. In 2020, the year Tokyo will host the Olympic and Paralympic Games, the nation's youngest baby-boomers will turn 75. Those aged 75 or over accounted for 12.9 percent of the country's population in 2015, and that age group is expected to make up 18.1 percent of the population in 2025, causing the government's medical and nursing care costs to balloon.
If the government were to rehabilitate state finances after that point, it would have no choice but to drastically raise taxes and cut back on social benefits, causing suffering across society -- especially among those who are economically weak.
Even a consumption tax hike to 10 percent, however, would unlikely be enough to improve the tight state of public finances by the target year of fiscal 2020. Additional fundraising efforts are therefore needed, but the government appears to be sidestepping this inconvenient issue.
That same attitude is also shared by opposition parties, though. The then ruling Democratic Party of Japan and the opposition Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito earlier struck an agreement to raise the consumption tax to avoid the issue becoming a point of contention in subsequent elections. But that accord fell apart easily after the Democratic Party -- which was launched earlier this year through a merger of the DPJ and Japan Innovation Party -- also called for postponing the sales tax hike.
The reason why the tripartite promise for restoring fiscal health was broken so easily was apparently because politicians take voters lightly and believe they won't get upset over such a matter.
The government's goal of restoring fiscal health by fiscal 2020 had originally been set for fiscal 2011, but that initial deadline was abandoned during the government of Prime Minister Taro Aso, who currently serves as deputy prime minister and finance minister.
We are, however, running out of time. We need to create a brand new form of common sense under which political parties do not win public confidence unless they honestly reveal the status quo and call for reforms to prevent the country from being caught up in a future crisis. Otherwise, politicians will only continue procrastinating on reforms until a tangible crisis becomes imminent.
The government must improve state finances as much as possible to curb uncertainties over the future, while the country retains some capacity to respond. At the same time, consideration must be given to households that are to bear heavy burdens from the sales tax increase.
Before the consumption tax is raised in October 2019, each chamber of the Diet will see yet another election. If Prime Minister Abe thinks his decision to delay the sales tax hike has been hailed by voters after observing the results of the July 10 upper house election, the same kind of procrastination could be repeated over and over again.
Whether voters can reverse the long-held notion that "no voters will get angry over a tax hike postponement" is now being put to the test. (By Yoko Fukumoto, Editorial Writer)