Editorial: Now is the time for Ozawa rebels and DPJ to part company
Though in the teeth of a rebellion led by former leader Ichiro Ozawa, the governing Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) has seen bills clear the House of Representatives underpinning a hike in the consumption tax -- a vital part of planned reforms to Japan's tax and social welfare systems. If there's one thing we now know from all this, however, it's that the fissure in the ranks of the DPJ is irreparable, and we believe now is the time for the Ozawa rebels and the DPJ to part company.
Regarding possible punishment for the 57 DPJ members who voted against their own party's legislation on June 26, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda was equivocal, saying only that he would "discuss the matter with (DPJ) Secretary-General Azuma Koshiishi" and wanted to respond "strictly." Ozawa, too, was unwilling to tip his hand after the vote, stating that "it will be decided soon" whether he will lead his band of rebels out of the DPJ and form a new party.
This dithering is not helping Japan. The electorate would find a quick split much easier to understand in terms of policy differences. Meanwhile, keeping on with a DPJ at war with itself will shake this country's party politics to the core.
The DPJ member votes against the consumption tax bill are surely a nasty blow to Prime Minister Noda, but apparently not all 57 rebels are looking to leave their party. Meanwhile, there are many party members saying Koshiishi and other party executives should not go so far as to expunge the rebels' names from the DPJ rolls.
Inside Ozawa's faction itself, there are some who want to wait and see what kind of punishment will come their way plus confirm the timing of the next general election before deciding on whether to form a new party. It may be that Ozawa simply wants to use the ranks of the rebels as a shield against Noda. If that's the case, then there's every possibility that the DPJ's civil strife will continue for some time.
The Japanese people, however, are being ignored in all of this political maneuvering. Don't the DPJ's leaders understand that not only does the electorate find all this tedious, but that its continuation is connected to hitherto unknown levels of distrust in the political system?
Prime Minister Noda -- chosen by his party just last year -- has said that his political life is riding on the series of tax and welfare reform bills, and he has gone through the process of getting the DPJ's input and approval for them more than once. He has also built trust between the DPJ and the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and New Komeito to get the bills through the Diet. If even after all that Noda doesn't punish the rebel members for their betrayal, then the DPJ can hardly be called a party at all.
On the other side of the divide, Ozawa's own moral position is tenuous at best. The former DPJ leader and his faction often talk of "things that need to be done before tackling the tax hike," and "we must stand by our election manifesto." It has been, however, nearly three years since the DPJ rode to power on the back of a manifesto promising to cut wasteful spending by 16.8 trillion yen, and we have to ask how much Ozawa and his bunch have done to help reach that goal.
Furthermore, Ozawa played the leading role in drawing up the DPJ's 2009 general election manifesto, and it was him and former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama who left the party's stance on fiscal reforms to a simplistic, "if the (LDP) administration is replaced, then all sorts of financial resources will appear." It was, however, at the end of 2009, with the Hatoyama administration in power, that Ozawa himself knocked out a pillar of the DPJ's election manifesto, namely the promise to repeal a temporary gasoline tax rate. We have to say that this looks like a political philosophy based more on opportunism than anything else.
Whether Ozawa establishes a new party or chooses instead the path to a prolonged DPJ civil war, he has an absolutely basic responsibility to reveal in concrete terms how he would maintain the social welfare system without raising the consumption tax. If he can't do that, rather than "putting the people's welfare first," as he is fond of saying, isn't he "putting the next election first"? That is, if he has no solutions of his own to present, then the reasons for his rebellion become quite obvious: to gain advantage in the next election by opposing the consumption tax hike.
Since he left the LDP in 1993, Ozawa has destroyed the new parties he's founded. Since the autumn 2003 merger of the DPJ and the Liberal Party -- founded by Ozawa and Hirohisa Fujii in 1998 -- the DPJ has been riven by pro-Ozawa and anti-Ozawa fights several times. We strongly believe that this sort of political infighting must be abandoned immediately, so that policy debates can be given the priority they deserve.
On this point, we must compliment Noda and the majority of the DPJ on its cooperation with opposition parties to get the tax and welfare reform bills through the Diet, thereby neutralizing (at least temporarily) the LDP's and Komeito's usual attempts to yank the rug out from under the government -- and all this with an internal revolt in full-swing. This is a first step towards "decisive politics." And as the DPJ has just under half the votes in the House of Councillors, Noda must deepen his administration's "partial alliance" with the LDP and Komeito if he is to continue to get bills passed.
Of course it must be said that the administration has yet to obtain the public's understanding of its tax hike policy. While the policy process has been moving forward under the guise of combined tax and welfare system reform, the tax hike has been given priority even as essential elements of the welfare side of the equation, including pension reform, have been shelved.
Policies to help soften the consumption tax blow to low-income individuals, such as reduced income tax rates, are set to come up for review soon, but a conclusion is not yet in sight. We call on the government to address this, rather than putting all its attention on passing its bills through the upper house.
Noda has stated that he would appeal to the public for support after all the tax and social security reform bills clear the Diet. This is also the moment when the government may be hit with calls to dissolve the house and call a general election. If, however, Noda hesitates to punish the rebels in his own party, the malcontents may team up with the opposition parties in a non-confidence vote and bring down the Noda Cabinet. Worrying about an early Diet dissolution, however, has meant the government has not been able to communicate any conviction in its position that "the people of Japan need this tax hike," or that it is determined "not to leave debt to future generations."
There is, in any case, only just over a year before the next general election must be held. No progress has been made, however, on resolving the disproportionate power of single votes in small electoral districts. As has been asserted many times already, it will be very difficult to reduce the number of districts at the same time as eliminating this disparity. However, we call on the government to make a priority of chopping the number of small districts by five, and certainly not to add any more.
All in all, the government chosen by the Japanese electorate has changed drastically since 2009. We strongly believe that now is the time for that government to seek the people's confidence once more, in the form of a general election.
June 27, 2012(Mainichi Japan)