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DPJ’s Diet handling gets low marks

Session saw bloc renege on key pledges

by Alex Martin

Last Christmas, then Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama led the Democratic Party of Japan into its first ordinary Diet session, telling reporters he wanted to give the public a “sense of hope” as a gift and vowing “tangible results” to improve their livelihoods.

But with a pile of bills left untouched and the ruling bloc in tatters following policy clashes, experts said the 150-day session that wrapped up Wednesday turned out to be a disaster that betrayed the public’s hopes for a change in politics.

“It was a continual process of trial and error for the DPJ,” said Yasuharu Ishizawa, professor of politics and media at Gakushuin Women’s College.

Ishizawa said that, despite the high support the DPJ enjoyed when it came to power after its historic election win last August, it was always going to be in for a rough ride, given its unrealistic policy goals and the need to strike a balance with its coalition partners, the Social Democratic Party and Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party).

“Over time, the DPJ exhausted all its political assets,” he said.

If things had gone according to script, and the DPJ’s campaign pledges for last year’s poll, a new plan would have been forged to relocate the U.S. Futenma air base somewhere outside of Okinawa, as per the SDP’s wishes, and the Kokumin Shinto-backed bill to roll back the postal privatization process would have cleared the Diet.

Instead, the SDP bolted from the coalition after the Hatoyama administration backpedaled on its pledge to move Futenma out of Okinawa, and Kokumin Shinto leader Shizuka Kamei resigned from the Cabinet after the postal bill was not acted on.

The list of unrealized policies does not stop there. Plans to free up highway tolls and scrap provisional surcharges on gas taxes also came to an end when the government realized it lacked the means to finance the projects.

Granting foreign residents suffrage in local-level elections and allowing married couples to assume separate surnames — policies that drew wide national attention when they were first introduced — were also halted after the administration failed to reach a consensus on them.

And to cap it all, Hatoyama abruptly stepped down over Futenma and a funding scandal, as did DPJ kingpin Ichiro Ozawa, leaving the government in the hands of Naoto Kan.

Despite strong demands from the opposition for the session to be extended, the Diet closed five days after the new prime minister gave his policy speech.

So what exactly did the DPJ achieve?

Koichi Nakano, political science professor at Sophia University, said it was inevitable the DPJ, as a rookie government, would face difficulties.

Nakano praised the DPJ for passing the second supplementary budget for fiscal 2009 and the fiscal 2010 annual budget, as well as carrying out key policies, including the distribution of allowances to child-rearing families and the freeing up of high school tuitions. But he said these were far from satisfactory achievements.

“Preparations are also under way for Diet and administrative reforms aimed at concentrating power in the hands of politicians rather than bureaucrats,” he said.

“But promises still exceed actual results,” he said. Despite the DPJ’s numerous missteps, however, the Liberal Democratic Party, the main opposition force, failed to seize the opportunity to stage a comeback from its crushing poll defeat last year.

Instead, the former ruling party had trouble redefining itself as an opposition party and suffered internal power struggles that led to a string of defections.

Meanwhile, with both Hatoyama and Ozawa out of the picture the Cabinet of Prime Minister Kan has seen its approval rate surge in recent days, giving it a realistic chance of faring well in the July 11 Upper House election.

Nakano of Sophia University said the results of the election would sway how the DPJ steers future Diet proceedings.

Out of the 242 Upper House seats, the DPJ currently holds 116, and maintains a threadbare majority with the help of Kokumin Shinto’s six seats.

Half of the sum total, 121 seats, will be up for grabs in July’s vote.

If the DPJ-led coalition were to lose a substantial number of seats and could no longer retain an Upper House majority, it would create an unbalanced Diet and Kan may be forced to step down, Nakano said.

“But with the sudden boost of support with the resignations of Hatoyama and Ozawa, that scenario seems unlikely,” he said.

Nakano said if the DPJ is able to win close to a majority in the chamber, it is possible the ruling party may sever its ties with its small ally and instead join up with newly formed parties with closer political agendas, including Yoshimi Watanabe’s Your Party or Yoichi Masuzoe’s Shinto Kaikaku (New Renaissance Party).

But whatever the results of the Upper House election, the DPJ will its hands full.

Kan has made fiscal reconstruction his priority, vowing to contain the ballooning national debt and end deflation, as well as create demand and more jobs to revive the economy.

Ishizawa of Gakushuin Women’s College said that with an ambitious agenda and a raft of bills awaiting deliberation, the DPJ’s real test is only just beginning.

“The DPJ has finally returned to the start line,” Ishizawa said. “The next Diet session will be the real challenge.”