The 192-day regular Diet session that ended on Wednesday will be remembered more for what it did not achieve than for what it did. In brief, it failed in two critical areas: political reform and economic revival. While politics bogged down in a quagmire of corruption, deflation dragged on, with no recovery in sight.
It was a scandal-wracked session that saw a number of bigwigs fall in disgrace. Mr. Muneo Suzuki, a former Liberal Democratic Party power broker, was arrested and indicted. Mr. Koichi Kato, former LDP secretary general, was effectively ousted from the Diet, as was Mr. Yutaka Inoue, former president of the Upper House.
In another dramatic reversal of fortune, Ms. Makiko Tanaka, the nation’s first female foreign minister, lost her job as her aggressive attempt to shake up the ministry backfired in the face of a bureaucratic revolt. She suffered further blows from a pay scandal involving her legislative secretaries, becoming a fallen idol in the process.
The Diet, to be sure, passed a bill putting more teeth in the anticorruption act. It also enacted legislation banning bureaucratic meddling in public works projects. However, these measures do not make the grade; they merely scratch the surface of what is truly needed.
Indeed, the Diet may be criticized for giving political reform a bad name. Not only has it done little to set tough rules aimed at cleaning up politics, it has also demonstrated a reluctance to unravel misconduct within its own ranks. The result is increased public cynicism toward politics.
The Diet has also dismayed a public anxious for a better life. The economy essentially remains where it was in late January when the session opened. Although the government says the worst is over, bad news abounds. Unemployment is stuck at a record 5.4 percent, with 3.7 million people out of work. Suicides have topped 30,000 annually for the past four years.
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi keeps saying “No reform, no recovery,” but people are tired of hearing that mantra. As yet there are no signs of a solid recovery, and much of the blame for this falls on the slow progress of economic reform.
The Diet has fallen short in other ways. Consider health insurance reform. Premiums and medical fees have been raised to cover the growing deficit, but absent an integrated reform plan, these price increases are seen as a makeshift attempt to make ends meet at the expense of the insured.
By the same token, reform is hardly the word to describe the postal deregulation package. Mail delivery, savings and life insurance will come under the control of a new public corporation next April, but the postal behemoth will remain just as strong. There is no road map for privatization, a top item on Prime Minister Koizumi’s reform agenda.
Two important proposals have been put on hold because of strong objections from opposition parties as well as a large segment of the public. One involves military emergency legislation designed to deal with a direct attack on Japan, specifically large-scale aggression from abroad. The other is meant to protect personal data from abuse.
Opposition has mounted primarily because these bills are riddled with problems. The military package includes no measures against large-scale terrorism and no rules for civilian protection. The privacy bill, on the other hand, includes dubious media regulations that could undermine freedom of expression. These are serious flaws that cannot be removed through half-hearted revision.
Legislative battles almost always involve political infighting. This seemed to be the case particularly in the last session. While the power struggle in the LDP intensified, the tug-of-war between the ruling and opposition parties likewise escalated. There were discernible signs of a political storm brewing.
Perhaps the most significant sign was the changing power balance between Mr. Koizumi and the LDP old guard. As his popularity plummeted, Mr. Koizumi was reduced to fighting an uphill battle against antireform forces. It is not difficult to imagine what will happen to his administration if he continues to make compromises.
The prime minister seems determined to carry out his reform plans. But the problem is that he is rapidly losing his most precious political capital: public support. An increasing number of people are disappointed in him, feeling that the reforms he speaks of are nothing more than a mirage.
In fairness to him, however, it must be said that the Diet also shares blame for the lack of progress. Reform, be it political or economic, will not begin unless the Diet approves it. Instead of embracing change, the latest session seemed to stand in its way.
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