Editorial: Keep decisive politics in motion
An agreement reached by Japan's ruling party and two main opposition parties on a set of social security and tax-reform bills has pulled Japanese politics back from the brink of collapse.
The consensus was reached after the creation of a system guaranteeing minimum monthly pension benefits -- promised by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in its 2009 election pledge -- was shelved.
The accord warrants praise as perhaps the first example of "decisive politics" displayed by the DPJ government since it took over from the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). However, rifts within the DPJ are becoming increasingly pronounced, and nothing is certain until the bill is passed in the current session of the Diet.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda should make a clean break from the persistent critics within the party, and move unflinchingly toward a vote on the bill in the House of Representatives. Both ruling and opposition parties must continue their deliberations in the House of Councillors and elsewhere on institutional design to gain the understanding of the public.
For the DPJ, the road leading to the latest agreement was a turbulent one that included concession upon concession. Still, there is great significance in the fact that the DPJ, LDP, and New Komeito were able to sign onto a common foundation for a tax hike proposal for which Noda declared he was putting his political career on the line.
The seriousness of Japan's fiscal crisis helped bring about the consensus despite complicated internal circumstances within each of the three parties. The situation is extraordinary: We are under great pressure to deal with increasing social security costs amid national and local government debt of some 1 quadrillion yen. In light of this, the parties involved in the accord fulfilled the bare minimum of their responsibilities by avoiding political turmoil and practicing decisiveness.
It must be noted, however, that the agreement was reached after decisions on many issues had been put off. The institution of minimum monthly pension benefits and the elimination of the latter-stage elderly health care system -- both included in the DPJ's policy pledges in the 2009 general election -- were shelved, and a decision is to be reached after an expert panel debates the two issues, taking government finances into account. In other words, the DPJ has been unable to identify funding required for a new pension system, or produce a convincing framework that would replace the current healthcare system. Major concessions on the part of the DPJ were only natural if an agreement were to be reached.
Initially, the LDP had demanded that the DPJ retract its major 2009 policy pledges and accept a social security reform bill that would maintain current pension and healthcare systems as its foundation, leading to speculation that the talks would break down. Eventually, however, LDP chief Sadakazu Tanigaki conceded with a revised proposal.
Because the LDP had launched a heavy-handed offensive against the DPJ knowing the weaknesses of the Noda administration, the final agreement may have left many LDP members dissatisfied. However, they must not forget that the public's distrust of social security and the healthcare system, as well as the fiscal crisis we face today, are a legacy of the LDP's long-term reign. If the party had spent its energy trying to capitalize on the DPJ's internal rifts, it would have only invited more resentment from the public.
Another issue that was placed on the backburner for the sake of consensus is specific institutional design of a tax reform that would raise sales tax up to 10 percent in two phases. As a measure for low-income citizens, the parties agreed on a simple temporary handout arrangement. Deliberations on the adoption of a reduced tax rate, which is the most effective measure for low-income families, were postponed.
We must not underestimate the results of various polls that show that the public's understanding of the sales tax hike is lacking. During recent discussions, New Komeito argued for the implementation of a reduced tax rate, beginning at 8 percent. We urge continued discussion on this issue in upper house deliberations to encourage better understanding of the bill among the public.
The principal focus for the time being will be on the DPJ's intraparty proceedings on the bill. While approval of a bill in the lower house is guaranteed when the three main parties reach an agreement, how big of a majority Noda will be able to obtain in the lower house will be telling.
There has been a rise in protests among moderates within the DPJ against the major concessions the party made in reaching the agreement. As it is only natural to object to the shelving of a party's main political pledges, Prime Minister Noda and other party leaders must explain the circumstances surrounding the agreement to party members and secure their cooperation.
The actions of former DPJ chief Ichiro Ozawa and his allies in the party, meanwhile, are difficult to understand. They have publicly risen in revolt against a policy whose general framework has been approved by the government and the ruling party, and have continued to protest it. They criticize the agreement as "an act of suicide" and "a breach of faith," but what they are really doing is fighting for power.
Like the no-confidence motion lodged against the then Cabinet of Prime Minister Naoto Kan that exposed intraparty discord in June last year -- a time when the nation was dealing with the immediate aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake -- the intraparty conflicts revolving around Ozawa bring nothing but negativity. There is a limit to how long both water and oil can remain in the same party, and it appears that we have reached it.
It is only natural for a vote on the bill to take place before the current Diet session ends on June 21. At the same time, the DPJ should take a tough stand against dissenters, including possible expulsion from the party.
Noda is soon expected to meet with LDP chief Tanigaki. It is still unclear, however, whether the bill will be approved in the lower house, how the LDP's demand for an early dissolution of the lower house will be dealt with alongside proceedings for the proposed bill, and what will be done about the additional time needed in the current Diet session to pass the bill.
With just over a year left in the terms of lower house members, a general election is coming up regardless. The future of social security will now be placed in the hands of a new expert panel to be established. Having each party come up with a responsible plan and seeking a public mandate is another way to go about it, however.
For such a process to be conducted in a fair manner, both the ruling and opposition parties have the responsibility to rectify vote-weight disparity in the House of Representatives, an unconstitutional state of affairs that has been allowed to endure. "Decisive politics" has been set in motion. Let's not stop it now.
June 16, 2012(Mainichi Japan)