National | ELECTION '04

Pension issue strikes chord with voters

Coalition said running scared as electorate responds to reform controversy

It’s always tough to draw the attention of apathetic voters when stumping.

But many candidates running in the July 11 House of Councilors election say that as far as one policy issue goes — reform of the public pension system — things are different this time around.

“Twice as many people pick up our fliers when I speak on pension issues compared with when I talk about pork-barrel politics,” remarked Yukihiko Akutsu, a House of Representatives member of the Democratic Party of Japan.

Akutsu is stumping on behalf of Toshio Ogawa, a former prosecutor and judge running on the DPJ ticket in the Tokyo constituency.

Given Ogawa’s background, it would be natural for him to build his campaign around his pledge to fight political corruption and pork-barrel politics. But according to Akutsu, voter reaction is especially favorable when he speaks about pension issues.

“In the past, it was difficult to criticize (the popular) Prime Minister (Junichiro Koizumi), since people tended to sympathize with him,” Akutsu said.

“But now it seems public reaction is starting to change.”

Pension system reform, as well as the dispatch of Self-Defense Forces troops to Iraq, are the hottest policy issues in the campaign.

In theory, a scenario in which the main issues are defined so clearly should provide the perfect backdrop for an election whose outcome could put Japan firmly on the path to a two-party system.

One indication that a shift of this kind is taking place is the decline in the number of candidates running in this year’s race — a record low 320, 176 fewer than the previous Upper House election, held in 2001.

Many observers perceive Koizumi’s Liberal Democratic Party and the DPJ as forming the core of any future two-party system. While the LDP and DPJ have increased their candidate numbers by six and 11, respectively, from the 2001 race, the three other major parties — New Komeito, the Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party — are all fielding fewer candidates.

Perversely, however, it seems that the greater the political strength amassed by the two parties, the greater the tendency for real policy debate to be left on the back burner.

In a political system dominated by two large parties, policy divides tend to narrow as the top opposition party begins to adopt more realistic agendas in order to wrest power from the ruling party, according to Norihiko Narita, professor of politics at Surugadai University in Hanno, Saitama Prefecture.

Yet verbal confrontations between the two sides usually become sharper, with one-upmanship becoming a dominant feature of the battle for power, he explained.

“Generally speaking, (parties’) positions toward each other tend to become particularly antagonistic within a two-party system,” the scholar reckoned.

“In political debates, the parties tend to place greater emphasis on issues on which they have conflicting views and attack the failures of the other.”

Accordingly, the war of words between the DPJ and the LDP-led ruling bloc, which includes New Komeito, in the ongoing campaign has been fierce.

Take pension reforms, for example.

The government’s plan calls for hiking premiums every year until 2017 while slashing benefits — a scheme that critics say leaves structural problems such as the burden imbalances among generations, occupations and household types virtually untouched.

Legislation to this end was enacted during the ordinary Diet session that ended June 16, despite stiff resistance from the opposition camp.

The DPJ, for its part, has proposed that the three existing public pension systems be integrated into one income-proportional pension program basically funded through tax revenue — mainly the consumption tax — to help low-income households and get people who currently refuse to pay compulsory pension premiums to also shell out money to support the system.

Narita believes the DPJ has presented a better pension reform proposal, and that the public trusts it more on this issue than it does the ruling bloc.

But in view of how the campaign has unfolded so far, it is hard to imagine that the two main parties are engaging in enlightened debate on such pivotal matters for the nation.

DPJ contenders seem to spend more time criticizing the failures of the ruling coalition instead of presenting constructive policy proposals.

But according to Narita, this is only to be expected.

“The DPJ can’t help but (campaign in such a fashion), as it is an opposition party,” he said.

Criticism of the coalition’s record is being mimicked by other opposition groups that also want to ride the perceived wave of voter anger over the pension issue and their concerns of the SDF dispatch to Iraq.

This public interest seems to have put the ruling bloc on the defensive, particularly New Komeito, which has boasted of being “a party supporting peace and social security.”

Makoto Nishida, former deputy editor of a business weekly magazine, is a New Komeito candidate running for an Upper House seat in Saitama Prefecture.

His campaign advisers have decided that he should not broach these two issues when he speaks; he should instead have party executives who stump on his behalf explain them for him.

“We’re not trying to avoid (the two issues),” stressed Hiroaki Nagasawa, a New Komeito Lower House member who serves as director general of Nishida’s campaign office.

But this stance is in stark contrast with the attitude many New Komeito candidates assumed during last November’s House of Representatives election.

In that race, the junior coalition partner boasted that the original idea for the government’s pension reform scheme had been its brainchild.

During the last Diet session, opposition lawmakers dwelt too much on pursuing the nonpayment of pension premiums by certain ruling coalition lawmakers, including Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and other key Cabinet ministers, although they turned an apparent blind eye to similar nonpayment by key figures in their own camp.

On the campaign trail, opposition candidates are attacking Koizumi for telling U.S. President George W. Bush during a bilateral summit in Georgia last month about his plans to have the SDF take part in the multinational force in Iraq — without any prior discussion on the matter at home.

But Noriko Hama, an economist and professor at Doshisha Business School, believes that, from a broader perspective, this is not a good thing.

She said the opposition parties have not presented any “grand vision” for the country in their policy campaigns, claiming they are instead focusing too much on specific issues that, in the wider scheme of things, are relatively minor.

“(The opposition) is handling the issues of pension reform and Iraq (simply) as matters in which there were problems concerning procedure and handling,” Hama said.

“That’s not good,” when the problems are actually more deeply rooted and serious, she added.

At the same time, she said she believes the ruling coalition’s policies should also come under closer public scrutiny.

As one example, she lamented Japan’s lack of a viable diplomatic policy that was not solely dependent on the United States, such as on the Iraq issue.

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