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It’s now a case of what clicks with voters

by Reiji Yoshida

As campaigning officially kicked off Tuesday for the Sept. 11 election, attention is focused on voters and their priorities.

Since the House of Representatives was dissolved Aug. 8, major political parties have vied to set the agenda for the election.

Media polls have indicated a majority of voters support Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s postal system privatization initiative. By calling the election, he is in fact seeking the judgment of voters on this reform drive.

Some surveys, however, suggest voters are strongly dissatisfied with the government’s public pension reforms. The big setback the ruling Liberal Democratic Party suffered in last summer’s House of Councilors election was attributed to this dissatisfaction.

The Liberal Democratic Party, which Koizumi heads, hopes voters want his reforms to continue and is centering its campaign on his postal privatization plan, which would transfer 380,000 public servants to new privatized companies starting in 2017, as well as put some 330 trillion yen in financial assets held by the postal savings and postal insurance schemes into the private sector.

The Democratic Party of Japan and other opposition parties are claiming Koizumi is trying to detract voter attention from other important issues, including the cash-strapped public pension system and future tax hikes that will be needed to curb the snowballing government deficit and to finance rising social welfare costs.

The DPJ continues to focus mainly on its call for the three separate public pension systems — for salaried workers, public servants and self-employed people — to be integrated into one. The minimum base pension would be financed through tax revenues, with guaranteed benefits of at least 70,000 yen a month.

The DPJ also wants consumption tax revenues to finance the basic part of the pension system. Party officials have said the 5 percent levy should be hiked to 8 percent, but the party has not included any specific figure in its campaign platform.

The LDP is repeating its earlier pledge to have the state shoulder half the burden of the basic pension program, up from one-third at present.

Diplomatic issues have remained in the background, although the ruling coalition — the LDP and New Komeito — and the opposition have been at sharp odds over when to withdraw the Ground Self-Defense Force troops currently engaged in a humanitarian mission in Samawah, southern Iraq.

The LDP platform does not mention Iraq and only says the party will further strengthen the Japan-U.S. security alliance while “actively promoting peace diplomacy” based on international cooperation centered on the United Nations.

New Komeito is pledging to promote Iraq’s postwar reconstruction but is noncommittal on when the troops should leave.

The DPJ vows to pull the GSDF out when the mission expires in December.

The Japanese Communist Party, the second-largest opposition party, and the Social Democratic Party never wanted the troops sent in the first place and are demanding an immediate withdrawal.

The JCP does not want the U.S. military forces in Japan, which have been here 60 years, to become a permanent fixture, and the SDP wants the U.S. bases in the country consolidated.

As for relations with other parts of Asia that have visibly soured under Koizumi, who has made annual visits to Tokyo’s war-related Yasukuni Shrine, the LDP is pledging to improve ties with China and South Korea.

The DPJ is vowing to “rebuild” Japan’s relations with China, saying it is a policy priority for Japan, and strengthen ties with South Korea, including the signing of a free-trade agreement. New Komeito proposes more educational and cultural exchanges with China and South Korea.

The JCP vows to put a stop to “moves to justify Japan’s past wars of aggression and colonial rule,” and says it will call on future prime ministers to stop visiting Yasukuni.

The SDP says it will strive to regain Asia’s trust in Japan and create a comprehensive security framework for Northeast Asia.

It also says it will work to realize a secular memorial facility for all war dead, maintaining that official visits to Yasukuni by top government leaders violate the constitutional separation of state and religion.

Voters are also expected to weigh how the parties address the huge public debt being racked up by the government and calls from some quarters for raising the consumption tax to cover the increasing costs of Japan’s rapidly graying society.

In fiscal 2004, tax revenue came to about 44 trillion yen, while general account expenditures totaled 82.2 trillion yen, 41.8 percent of which was covered with new government bond issues.

The LDP is repeating the government goal of achieving a primary budgetary balance — revenue minus noninterest expenditures — by early in the next decade, while pledging not to immediately increase the tax burden on salaried workers, as a government tax advisory panel recommended earlier.

The LDP and New Komeito are vowing to “realize fundamental reforms to the tax system, including the consumption tax,” around fiscal 2007, but have not elaborated on this theme.

Koizumi has repeatedly said he will not raise the sales tax while he is LDP president, and his term lasts till September 2006.

The DPJ is pledging to cut 10 trillion yen in the general account over three years, mainly through consolidation of subsidies to local governments, cuts in public works projects and a reduction in personnel costs of national public servants.

The JCP and SDP strongly oppose any consumption tax hike because that would increase the burden on low income earners. They argue that corporate tax hikes should come first.