Thursday, February 2, 2012

What Are The Survival Prospects Of the Noda Cabinet?

Two seemingly unrelated stories dominated Japan’s political news over the last weekend in January. First, Japan’s ruling party, the DPJ, discovered and then tried to hide an estimate that the consumption tax would have to be 17% by 2075 to fulfill commitments. The second is the rise Osaka City Mayor Hashimoto Toru onto the national stage. Tying these two together is that opposition to the rightwing Hashimoto may be the salvation to the DPJ’s repeated bad judgment as exemplified by its obsessing over a distant future scenario.

Consumption tax surprise
The Noda administration has publicly committed itself to raising the consumption tax from 5% to 10% over the next three years. At the same time, the DPJ made its own internal estimates of the amount the consumption tax would need to rise to fund the pension payment promise made in the party’s 2009 Manifesto. This was 7.1% by the year 2075, suggesting that the consumption tax in 2075 would be greater than 17%.

A debate broke out within the party leadership over whether or not to publicly air this estimate. In the face of difficult bargaining with the LDP-New Komeito opposition alliance over the bill raising the tax to 10%, opening up about a situation arising decades hence seemed foolish.

Predictably, the opposition LDP and the New Komeito caught wind of this debate. Just as predictably, their leaders went before the cameras to complain that the DPJ was negotiating in bad faith and trying to cover up the truth about the consumption tax. The DPJ thus gave itself yet another black eye before the public, with the likelihood that the foul-up up was to knock a few more points off the Noda Cabinet’s popularity.

Rise of the Right
However, the usual slide in public approval is not necessarily going to doom Noda Yoshihiko as it has the last four prime ministers. This is because the weekend’s other top political story -- the wholesale rush by rightist and quasi-libertarian politicians to embrace the rising political movement of Osaka City Mayor Hashimoto Toru -- poses an existential threat to the mainstream political order.

Hashimoto’s politics is heady and if not somewhat simplistic. Derisively referred to as “Hashism,” it appeals to a broad spectrum of political elements usually excluded from visible power on the national stage. His unrepentant patriotism and his crusade against the education system makes him a favorite of supporters of the rightwing Sunrise micro-party and Tokyo Governor Ishihara Shintaro.

His bureaucrat-bashing and budget-slashing zeal during his days as Osaka Governor energizes the supporters of Watanabe Yoshimi’s hardline anti-bureaucrat Your Party. His call for the creation of an Osaka Metropolitan District, a mirror image of the Tokyo Metropolitan District, has revived an off-again on-again movement for a major devolution of power to the regions.

“Hashism” is an electoral winner. Hashimoto shellacked his incumbent opponent, the avuncular Hiramatsu Kunio, in the Osaka City election last November. Hashimoto prevailed despite Hiramatsu’s enjoying the support of all major national political parties except for the Your Party. Even the Communist Party, which until now has never cooperated with other parties and has always run a candidate in elections for municipalities, deferred on putting up a candidate of its own in the Osaka election in order to boost Hiramatsu’s numbers.

Hashimoto now is in control of the Osaka governorship, the Osaka prefectural assembly, and the Osaka City government. He is a young man in a hurry who fully embraces that he is a “movement.” He refuses to cooperate with either the DPJ or the LDP. Instead, he wants to establish a training school for 400 novice politicians to run under his direction in the next House of Representatives election.

Defending the Status Quo
This potential army of candidates and Hashimoto’s current popularity has the Tokyo establishment scared. The Yomiuri Shimbun, the de facto party paper of the LDP, recently made an about-face and demanded that the LDP and the New Komeito drop their petulant, automatic “No” to anything the DPJ proposes. Calls for immediate elections, which have been the staple of LDP and New Komeito rhetoric for over a year, have suddenly abated.

For the LDP particularly, collaboration with Noda and the DPJ is now the lesser of two evils. That a new era of peace shall break out in between the DPJ and the LDP-New Komeito alliance may seem a stretch. There remain and will remain serious differences of opinion over particular programs and policies.

However, the Noda government has demonstrated a willingness to include LDP and New Komeito ideas in legislation, or even swallowing LDP-New Komeito draft legislation wholesale (marunomi). The rocket-like rise of Hashimoto into the national political scene seems to be untwisting the “twisted” Diet, raising the hope that the major establishment parties can cooperate, at least in the interim, to pass major pieces of legislation.

The result is that Noda’s poll numbers may not fully reflect the strength of his administration. There are now other factors at play that can prolong his tenure. In the Nagata-cho, opposition to Mayor Hashimoto’s populism is stronger than opposition to Prime Minister Noda.

Michael Thomas Cucek
Research Associate
MIT Center for International Studies
This essay first appeared in the January 30th issue of the Asia Policy Calendar, which is sent to the members of Asia Policy Point

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