Hatoyama backpedals on pledges

Cites need for 'flexibility' as he looks set to renege on tax breaks, blanket child allowance

by Jun Hongo and Alex Martin

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama indicated Thursday he may abandon key election pledges made by his Democratic Party of Japan, citing the need for “flexibility” in politics.

Hatoyama’s remarks echoed those of DPJ Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa, who caused a stir Wednesday when he called for continuing auto-related taxes and introducing an income cap into the plan to give cash allowances to households with young children, both of which run counter to pledges made by the DPJ ahead of the August general election that brought the party to power.

“The principles are important, but protecting the lives of the public is important as well,” Hatoyama told reporters Thursday.

Hatoyama, while careful to avoid taking a clear stance, added the government will need “flexibility” in responding to new developments, including the ongoing economic downturn.

“I will respect the voice of the nation,” he said.

Using similar language, Ozawa, perhaps the most powerful figure in the coalition, said his appeals were based on petitions submitted to the DPJ.

During the August election, the DPJ promised to provide monthly allowances to families with children of junior high school age or younger, regardless of income level. The party also promised to end the provisional gas tax and other taxes related to autos.

But facing a sharp fall in tax revenues and ballooning government debt, Hatoyama’s Cabinet is finding it extremely difficult to fund all of the party’s generous election pledges, which helped bring the total budget requests from ministries to a record high ¥95 trillion.

Separately Thursday, Finance Minister Hirohisa Fujii said he still believes the government should not “in principle” set an income limit on the child allowances, but did not rule out treating high-income families differently.

Fujii said households with an annual income in excess of ¥100 million may need to be excluded from the allowance program, while those earning around ¥8 million would be included if Hatoyama eventually decides to set some sort of income limit.

Asked if the party is in danger of breaching its political “manifesto,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirano told reporters the government must clarify its position if ultimately it decides to take a different path.

Major newspapers and TV news shows have already started playing up the policy changes as violations of the public trust, which could deal a blow to the Cabinet. Before and during the election campaign, Hatoyama and the DPJ garnered voter support by repeatedly attacking the previous government, led by ex-Prime Minister Taro Aso, over policy “flip-flops.”

But some observers note that major policy shifts after an election are not uncommon, in other countries as well, and may be politically acceptable given the seriousness of the financial situation the debt-ridden government is confronting amid Japan’s worst postwar recession.

“I believe the adjustments — such as putting a cap on child-allowance recipients — are a matter of course,” said Hidekazu Kawai, a professor at Gakushuin University in Tokyo.

While the media may play up any small adjustments as breaches by Hatoyama, such alterations are common abroad, including in the U.K., the expert on international politics added.

Information from Kyodo added