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Promises of 2009 campaign proved hollow

Vows DPJ made to get in sounded too good to be true

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

Goshi Hosono, the handsome policy chief of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, is one of the few politicians who has retained his popularity despite predictions the party is headed for a crushing defeat in the Dec. 16 Lower House election.

Hosono is the main act in a recently recorded 10-minute video that is being used to kick off DPJ rallies across the country. His mission: To apologize.

“When I saw your manifesto for 2009, I thought the ideas were really great,” an angry salaryman who only identified himself as Sugimoto said at a Nov. 10 rally in Osaka attended by Hosono and other lawmakers. “But now I must first say this: ‘You’re liars.’ ”

The DPJ swept to a historic victory in 2009 with rosy promises, including a monthly ¥26,000 allowance to households with children, a ban on expressway tolls and a four-year moratorium on any consumption tax hike despite snowballing debt and social security costs.

But the DPJ, which ended the conservative Liberal Democratic Party’s roughly five decades in power, failed to deliver on most of its promises as the party and the government became paralyzed by internal strife, and later by a divided Diet that thwarted its initiatives.

At the Osaka rally, Hosono repeated what the video said and humbly admitted many of the DPJ’s pledges had not been “sufficiently met,” he said, adding, “We have to apologize for what has not been realized yet.”

Similar exchanges are taking place at DPJ rallies nationwide, where the frustrations of voters like Sugimoto appear to be shared by most of the public, which responded in overwhelming fashion to the DPJ’s U.S.-inspired calls for change three years ago.

What went wrong? The DPJ appeared to be Japan’s greatest hope for transforming an inefficient, debt-ridden government mired in economic decline and slowed by an aging society.

DPJ insiders say the party started advocating unrealistic policies to cater to voters and snatch power from the LDP, in particular through the 2007 Upper House election under then President Ichiro Ozawa.

“Comparing all the other manifestos, I think it is the 2007 one that was particularly bad,” DPJ policymaker Koji Matsui admitted in a recent interview with Toyo University professor Katsuyuki Yakushiji that was included in the latter’s new book, “Shogen Minshuto Seiken” (“Testimony: Inter Politics of the Democratic Party”). Matsui was deputy chief Cabinet secretary under the first DPJ prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama.

In the 2007 Upper House election, the DPJ promised to save as much as ¥15.3 trillion in “wasteful spending” and tap stagnant funds and other assets squirreled away in a plethora of quasi-governmental special corporations.

The target of the waste-busting initiative was later raised to ¥16.8 trillion in the 2009 platform drawn up under then DPJ President Hatoyama, a close Ozawa ally who became the prime minister after the poll.

“(The leaders) crunched the numbers and made up something like a wish list of budget items to cut, without asking professionals to examine them. That was very dangerous,” the book quoted Matsui as saying. “But they allowed themselves to do that.”

Most of the DPJ’s promises were based on savings from the budget-cutting plan and the assumed windfall from digging up unused state funds and assets. Above all, the party pledged to cut as much as ¥9.1 trillion in subsidies that were being doled out to various entities or used for mysterious miscellaneous expenses.

But once they assumed power, none of the Cabinet ministers tried to organize or oversee the systematic effort needed to slim down the budget as pledged in the platform, according to Yoshihiro Katayama, a former Tottori governor who was internal affairs minister under Hatoyama’s successor, Naoto Kan.

“Nobody was in charge,” he told The Japan Times. “I didn’t sense any guts or tenacity (in any of the Cabinet ministers) in trying to carry out the manifesto.”

The DPJ has been mired in policy rifts, including over whether to hike the consumption tax. But the party never tried to overcome its strife and make a firm decision as an organization, Katayama said.

“So I used to describe the DPJ as a zebra party,” he said. “The black and white never mixed.”

The DPJ originally drew its strength from urban areas by advocating policies that catered to unaffiliated voters, such as cutting public works projects in rural areas to boost support for working urban mothers.

Until the 2007 Upper House poll, the DPJ also favored hiking the unpopular consumption levy to reform the ailing public pension system. But as its popularity grew, it began catering to both rural and urban voters, blurring the policies that distinguished it from the LDP. Then the DPJ began advocating a more expansive fiscal policy.

Ozawa, who often put priority on winning over policy continuity, then began advocating a child allowance of ¥26,000 per month, doubling the previous proposal of ¥13,000. To provide ¥26,000 a month to eligible households, the government would need to spend more than ¥5 trillion a year, which today would eclipse the ¥4.7 trillion defense budget for fiscal 2012.

During the DPJ’s 2009 presidential race, Hatoyama, who won, argued that the party “should not even discuss” hiking the sales tax.

Given the nation’s snowballing social security costs and a looming fiscal crisis, the tax issue eventually split the party and led to the departure of more than 50 members in an Ozawa-led exodus last July. It was the final blow to the already unpopular Cabinet of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, whose tax hike bill was passed with LDP and New Komeito support.

The DPJ’s power struggles weakened its unity and the government as well. For example, Kan, the party’s second prime minister, was forced to step down after the pro-Ozawa group threatened to support a no-confidence motion submitted by the opposition parties.

Katayama said many of the Cabinet ministers were apparently appointed to “maintain a power balance between the intraparty factions” or to reward their performance in political maneuverings.

“They were all inept. (The DPJ) should have appointed (to the Cabinet) experts from outside,” Katayama said.

One step the DPJ advocated to save taxpayer money was to convert a vast amount of government subsidies into lump-sum grants to regional governments. The DPJ argued that lump sums are easier and thus more efficiently used by cities and prefectures, resulting in vast savings.

But after Katayama entered Kan’s Cabinet in June 2010, he found the Hatoyama Cabinet was ready to convert only ¥2.7 billion in subsidies into lump-sum income transfers.

“I told (the other minsters) that the small amount was a joke. A sum of ¥2.7 billion would only be a fraction, even in the budget of the Tottori Prefectural Government,” Katayama said.

Although the bureaucracy resisted, Katayama, with help from construction minister Sumio Mabuchi and farm minister Michihiko Kano, finally managed to convert ¥512.5 billion in subsidies into lump-sum income transfers.

Reflecting on all the chaos that plagued the DPJ government, Katayama, now a professor at Keio University, still believes the change of power in 2009 was “a good thing” because it cut at the corruption entrenched by the LDP’s long one-party rule.

The DPJ may have caught an unlucky break as well. When the party took power in fall 2009, government tax revenues had plunged by as much as ¥9 trillion because of the global financial crisis that started in 2008, hamstringing its ability to follow through on its election promises.

“The people expected too much from the DPJ” despite its lack of experience in running the government, Katayama said.