KEY OPPOSITION FOREVER ON DEFENSIVE

Besieged DPJ unable to rise to debate

by Hiroko Nakata

With the Monday approval of the fiscal 2006 budget by the Diet, lawmakers have turned their focus to bills up for deliberation during the remainder of the session, but the opposition camp’s state of disarray may prevent serious debate on the role of government in society, critics say.

A bill to shrink the size of the debt-ridden bureaucracy has drawn the most attention as Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi looks to place the finishing touches on his reform agenda before September, when he is expected to step down after five years and five months.

“What’s important is to review the role of the government, hand over part of the administration the government doesn’t have to handle to the private sector, slash useless administration, improve the private sector’s initiative and independence, and create an environment that (lets) the private sector do its best,” Koizumi said March 23, when debate on the reform bill began.

The bill is based on his “small government” goal, which aims to cut the number of civil servants by 5 percent over the next five years and reorganize government-backed financial institutions as part of efforts to combat the soaring state debt.

The bill sets the stage for disposal of state-owned assets, including civil servant housing located in areas of high resale value, including Tokyo’s Minami Aoyama district. And it aims to streamline 31 separate government accounts that have long been synonymous with waste.

But the bill faces strong opposition from bureaucrats and Liberal Democratic Party heavyweights who serve not only as ministers, but also defend the interests of the bureaucrats under them.

Those bureaucrats, who enjoy jobs for life and subsidized housing, are fighting tooth and nail to hang on to their perks.

But the biggest problem with the reform program, some critics reckon, is the short shrift being given by the opposition camp, particularly the Democratic Party of Japan, to the proper role of the state in society and the type of public services people need.

“The DPJ has been out of the discussions,” said Yasunori Sone, a professor of political science at Keio University, adding the current debate is between reform-minded lawmakers and those less eager for change within the ruling LDP, which Koizumi heads until September.

“The DPJ has not yet recovered from the e-mail scandal,” Sone said, referring to the attempt last month by Lower House member Hiroyasu Nagata to discredit LDP Secretary General Tsutomu Takebe by using a dubious e-mail to demonstrate shady financial ties between his son and disgraced Livedoor Co. founder Takafumi Horie.

The e-mail, which Nagata read out in the Diet, claiming it was orders from Horie to staff to transfer 30 million yen to Takebe’s son last August in exchange for Takebe’s help in Horie’s failed September election bid, proved fake and forced those behind it and the DPJ in general to eat crow.

Because the incident heavily damaged the public’s trust in the opposition party, it may be hard for the DPJ to regain its credibility and forcefully propose policies until its leader, Seiji Maehara, steps down and a successor is found in the party’s September presidential race, Sone said.

“But in the worst (case) scenario, damage may linger even after the (DPJ) election,” he added.

Fallout from the bogus e-mail continues. Nagata has been suspended from the DPJ and the Lower House has summoned Dumont magazine executive Takashi Nishizawa, whom Nagata belatedly identified Friday as the conduit for the e-nail to Nagata, to testify on April 4.

As the political scuffle drags on and the Lower House Disciplinary Committee weighs punishment for Nagata, the damage to the DPJ will deepen, observers say.

“Whether there will be heated debate in the Diet depends on whether the DPJ gets back on its feet and (whether) the LDP is eager to accept such debate,” said Jun Iio, professor of government at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.

The DPJ has not submitted an alternative to Koizumi’s administrative reform legislation, partly because some members are backed by bureaucrat unions that oppose major job cuts.

Another bill likely to be approved soon by the Diet is one aiming to slash the government’s growing health-care expenditures by raising the medical payments and hospitalization costs for the elderly.

If the bill is passed, people aged 70 or older with an income of 6 million yen per household, for example, will have to pay 30 percent of their total medical costs, up from the current 20 percent, starting in October.

“We don’t really think it is correct to simply drive Japan toward a small government,” said Takeaki Matsumoto, DPJ policy affairs chief. The party wants to make the government efficient, but compassionate toward the people, he said.

The DPJ plans to submit a bill aimed at improving medical care for cancer patients and children.

Although the ruling bloc — the LDP and New Komeito — holds two-third of the seats in the Lower House, some of the more contentious bills may have a hard time succeeding.

One would revise the basic education law to include an article meant to instill patriotism in children.

New Komeito opposes the bill’s language, saying it is reminiscent of the wartime militaristic nationalism. The party wants more mild wording, including “respect for the country.”

Another contentious bill is the one that would authorize a national referendum that would pave the way for the Constitution to be amended.

Although the Constitution says any amendment must be approved by referendum, the legal framework for such a vote has never been established in the more than half century since the postwar charter took effect.

But because approval of a referendum bill will be a step toward amendment, most notably one that would ease the restrictions on the Japanese military’s use of force in international disputes, the bill will trigger major public debate. Even the ruling bloc will probably refrain from pushing the bill too hard without a thorough discussion in the Diet.

To facilitate such debate, observers say the ruling coalition may extend the current Diet session, which is scheduled to end June 18.

But even if the session is extended, whether the DPJ, whose ranks are split on the amendment issue, could offer forceful debate on these contentious bills is no given.

“Currently, it is very difficult for the DPJ to get out of (its) predicament,” said Keio University’s Sone.