Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s economic policy is coming under increasing criticism from the opposition parties. They have mainly condemned him for failing to produce either reform or growth, and have pointed out that his battle against deflation is reaching deadlock. That criticism — which is not far off the mark — escalated during the plenary debates held this week in both chambers of the Diet following the prime minister’s policy speech last Friday.
As expected, Mr. Koizumi found himself largely on the defensive. While stressing that his commitment to reform “remains unshaken,” his answers to questions mostly followed the lines of his lackluster policy speech. As opposition leaders pointed out, he has yet to provide workable prescriptions for the ailing economy. There is a pervasive sense of paralysis, and not only in the political world.
Recent economic statistics paint a gloomy picture. The unemployment rate, for example, averaged a record 5.4 percent in 2002. In the same year, monthly wages dropped by an average 2.3 percent from the year before. It was the deepest year-on-year decline since the government began taking relevant surveys.
Fighting the deflationary slump is a common challenge for the ruling and opposition parties. The two sides need to pool their intellectual resources to work out effective policy measures. That is what the economic debate should be all about. It is not enough that the opposition parties attack government policies. The test for them is to present specific and credible alternatives to government plans.
In this regard, the Democratic Party of Japan, the leading opposition group, has a large role to play. Mr. Katsuya Okada, the party’s new secretary general, seemed well aware of that when he kicked off opposition questions in the Lower House. In an opening statement, he said the DPJ is considering a set of measures on the assumption that it will take the helm.
Mr. Okada trotted out a string of figures as evidence of the government’s policy mistakes — such as the sharp rise in personal bankruptcies and the large number of public high school students who have had their tuitions exempted or reduced because their parents are unemployed. “There is not the slightest prospect of economic growth led by private demand,” he declared. “This is nothing but the result of policy errors.”
To create jobs, he said, the DPJ will propose an outlay of 8 trillion yen in such priority areas as welfare, education, and startup and ongoing support for small businesses. The party, he added, will present a detailed program in due course. This is a constructive proposal that deserves due attention by the government and the ruling coalition as well. It should not be rejected outright simply because it is an opposition plan.
The question is whether the DPJ proposal is feasible. The party says the jobless rate will drop to the 4 percent level if its spending package is adopted. It is not very clear, though, how this will be achieved. There is also the question of funding. The party only says the necessary revenue will be generated through a “drastic overhaul” of public works projects and state-owned corporations.
If the DPJ is more or less united over economic policy, it is still deeply divided over security policy. By contrast, the Liberal Party is taking a clear-cut stand on the issues of war and peace. Mr. Ichiro Ozawa, the party leader, proposed the creation of a “U.N. peace cooperation force” — a unit separate from the Self-Defense Forces — that would be deployed overseas under U.N. Security Council and General Assembly resolutions.
The DPJ, if it is to take a leadership role in the opposition camp, needs to take the initiative on security and diplomatic issues as well. For that, it must actively exchange views with other opposition parties. Without these efforts — working for a joint budget revision is not enough — the party will not be able to “present the option of reviving Japan through a change of power,” as Mr. Okada put it.
Mr. Koizumi’s answers to opposition questions lacked punch, as did his policy address. Uncharacteristically, he spoke in a monotone most of the time, reading from statements prepared by bureaucrats. In previous speeches he had drawn applause even from opposition parties. Nothing of the sort happened this time around. The irony is that he received loud cheers from critics in his own party when he showed respect for them regarding his disputed plan to privatize the toll-road system.
Plenary debates are usually a one-way street, with the prime minister and other key Cabinet ministers answering questions presented beforehand from prepared statements. More penetrating and vigorous debate should be conducted at the Lower House Budget Committee meeting, which will begin today.
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