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Third force’s reform proposals flashy but unreal

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

The so-called main third force parties hope to cast themselves after the Lower House election as viable alternatives to the established parties by proposing ambitious, even radical, reforms in a number of areas.

But given widespread predictions of victory for the Liberal Democratic Party, the symbol of old-guard politics, just how realistic are their plans to address the main issues of this year’s campaign — the consumption tax, the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade talks and nuclear policy?

Of the three emergent third-force parties, Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party), founded by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto and now run by hawkish ex-Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, is likely to win the most seats. The party originally espoused a mixture of populist stances on issues like nuclear power and government waste, and had a more Reaganite agenda to slim down government, promote privatization schemes, and, above all, replace the prefecture system with a regional bloc system, an idea long pushed by Kansai business groups.

Nippon Ishin’s merger last month with Ishihara and his allies, who disagree with the original Osaka members on the three main election issues, has produced a somewhat vague platform. Nippon Ishin does not have a formal position on raising the consumption tax and would rather turn it into a local-level levy in the hope that each prefecture can gain financial autonomy from Tokyo and compete for business investment.

On the U.S.-led TPP, Nippon Ishin backs Japanese participation in the talks unless they go against the nation’s interests, which appear to be whatever the party determines them to be. Hashimoto and the original Nippon Ishin cast supported the TPP but Ishihara and his allies don’t, resulting in the compromise platform.

Nuclear power is where Nippon Ishin has generated the most controversy and confusion. The party now promises to “fade out” of nuclear power by the 2030s. But Ishihara said he will reverse this, even as Hashimoto and the party’s No. 3, Ichiro Matsui, said it would stay in place.

Your Party’s platform is the most detailed of those issued by the three third-force parties and is designed to appeal to younger, moderately conservative urban voters. The party wants to freeze the sales tax hike until the Lower House is shrunk from 480 to 300 seats, the Upper House to 100 seats, and certain Diet perks, such as free bus and airplane tickets and special government cars, are abolished.

Your Party head Yoshimi Watanabe strongly supports the TPP as necessary for Japan to stay competitive within Asia, and to ensure Japan doesn’t become isolated internationally. By joining the talks, the party sees Tokyo returning to its place as a major regional financial center, the nation welcoming large numbers of skilled foreign workers, and vast improvements being made in the way Japanese communicate with the world.

Two of Your Party’s 30-page platform are devoted to exiting nuclear power in the next decade. A series of steps for establishing new government agencies to handle the transition and provide municipalities that host nuclear plants with financial aid to ease the process are suggested.

Your Party also promises to abolish all of the nation’s reactors once they’ve passed 40 years of operation, to drop the national fuel recycling program, and to hold a national plebiscite on the future of nuclear power.

As for Nippon Mirai no To (Tomorrow Party of Japan), although it is headed by Shiga Gov. Yukiko Kada, the party’s platform largely reflects the views of former DPJ (and LDP) kingpin Ichiro Ozawa.

Nippon Mirai opposes raising the sales tax. Like Your Party, it wants to first eliminate wasteful public works spending. Appealing to the service industries, it is also concerned about more small and midsize enterprises going bankrupt if the tax is raised.

The party opposes the TPP, calling it an attempt by the United States to impose its rules on other nations in sectors like food safety, beef and medical insurance — a similar argument to Ishihara’s.

Tetsunari Iida, head of the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies, is the party’s No. 2, and Nippon Mirai has made “graduating” from nuclear power its priority by 2022. To do that, it envisions deregulating the electricity supply system, encouraging renewable energy investment at the local level, and ensuring communities hosting nuclear plants are given financial assistance to support them through the transition.

So how realistic are the third-force parties’ plans?

Making the sales tax a local levy, as per Nippon Ishin’s wishes, or waiting until the Diet is downsized, as Your Party seeks, assumes the Diet will overcome not only objections from the Finance Ministry, which wants to maintain its power to oversee the budget, but also those of politicians from rural prefectures who feel their constituencies benefit from a system that gets grants from the central government. It further assumes the Diet will willingly reduce its ranks.

On the TPP, the situation in both Japan and the U.S. suggests there will not be an agreement anytime soon — at least not the kind proponents in both countries envision.

As of late 2011, the Central Union of Agricultural Cooperatives identified 356 Diet members as formally opposed to the pact, including Nippon Ishin members Takeo Hiranuma and Yorihisa Matsuno. More than 90 were from the LDP and 15 from New Komeito, which is again likely to join the LDP as a ruling coalition partner after the election. Virtually all of the traditional opposition parties were also against the deal.

The TPP also faces problems in the U.S., where concern is growing about the agreement itself and Japan’s potential participation. U.S. congressional representatives and influential NGOs like Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch have criticized the TPP talks for their secrecy and for the fact the full negotiating text has yet to be publicly released, suggesting the pact could face a tough time getting congressional approval.

As for nuclear power, whether Japan can shift to renewable energy partially or completely by the 2020s or the 2030s depends on the political will and the level of public and private investments in the energy sector made over the next couple of years.

The cost of switching from nuclear power to renewable energy by 2030 is the subject of considerable debate.

In September, the government estimated it would cost ¥50 trillion to go completely nuclear-free, and ¥40 trillion to have nuclear account for 15 percent of electricity supply, which essentially means not building any new plants and closing those 40 years old by that year.

The nuclear fuel cycle also faces problems. The government is searching for localities to host interim storage sites for spent fuel being produced by the nation’s commercial reactors. The plan is to have local governments temporarily store the fuel until it can be shipped to the reprocessing facilities in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture.

But the recycling plan is decades behind schedule and no such facilities have been built due to opposition from the few local governments that have expressed interest. There were about 14,200 tons of spent nuclear fuel sitting around at 17 nuclear plants as of September 2011.

What is needed first, though, is a formal Diet agreement on national energy policy.

On the one hand, 94 ruling and opposition camp Diet members, including 68 from the Lower House, formed Genpatsu Zero no Kai (no-nuclear Diet member association) this summer in a dedicated effort to end Japan’s reliance on atomic power. They’ve drawn up a bill that would cancel plans for new reactors, create measures to abolish the old ones, get Japan out of the nuclear fuel recycling program, and establish a budget to provide financial assistance to localities hosting the plants.

But the bill has not been submitted to the Diet and only three LDP members are in the group.

In a recent interview, Makoto Yagi, chairman of the Federation of Electric Power Companies and an ardent supporter of atomic power, said the LDP’s values were closer to the federation’s than the DPJ.

The implication is that the bill won’t clear a postelection Diet, which is likely to be controlled by the LDP, and that the party will take a go-slow approach at best to meeting third-force party demands to get out of nuclear and shift to renewable energy.