A n extraordinary Diet session that opened Tuesday looks set for lively debates on a host of contentious issues, including the perennial problem of “politics and money.” Adding to that is last month’s reshuffle of the Cabinet and of top executive posts in both the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the opposition Democratic Party of Japan.
The issue of clean politics is focused on the dubious 100 million yen donation that the LDP’s largest faction received from a national dentist group. Other issues include privatization of the postal services (mail, savings and insurance), reform of the social-security system including pension programs, the situation in Iraq, and relocation plans for U.S. forces in Japan.
Postal privatization is the main pillar of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s reform agenda, yet much of the public remains unconvinced about what he says. In a recent opinion poll, 54 percent of those surveyed supported privatization, while 35 percent expressed reservations. As many as 88 percent said Mr. Koizumi should “explain more” about why he wants to privatize the postal system and what he intends to achieve.
Mr. Koizumi loves slogans like “No reform, no growth.” Repeating such catchphrases may sharpen the public mind, but they will end up empty without backup explanations. “Let the private sector do what it can do best,” he says, yet he keeps mostly silent on how to make that possible. He needs to state his views more clearly, instead of leaving everything to Mr. Heizo Takenaka, the Cabinet minister in charge of postal reform.
During the Diet session, Mr. Koizumi should speak specifically not only about the postal issue but also about other questions that have direct bearing on the lives of the Japanese people, such as pension reform. It would be better if Mr. Koizumi and the DPJ leader, Mr. Katsuya Okada — who aims to bring the party to victory in the next general election — conduct face-to-face exchanges on a regular basis. Given the improving prospects for a two-party system, the national audience is more interested in watching the heads of the two largest parties square off in televised parliamentary exchanges.
It will also be interesting to see key former DPJ heads Mr. Yukio Hatoyama and Mr. Naoto Kan plus polemicist Mr. Seiji Maehara — serving respectively as foreign minister, land and transport minister and defense chief in the party’s “shadow Cabinet” — face off with their real counterparts in the Koizumi Cabinet. The DPJ and other opposition parties are bracing to take the LDP to task on the donation scandal. The investigation by Tokyo prosecutors has practically ended with the arrest of the faction’s treasurer and the indictment of former Chief Cabinet Secretary Kanezo Muraoka. Questions remain, however, as to why the money was given and how it was used.
Former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, who was the head of the faction when he allegedly received a check for 100 million yen, should testify under oath. The scandal has again exposed loopholes in the Political Funds Control Law: The sky is the limit for donations from one political group to another — in this case, from the Japan Dentists Federation, the political arm of the Japan Dental Association, to the Hashimoto faction’s fund management group. It is also necessary to prohibit “detour donations” to selected legislators through the LDP’s National Political Association, the party’s fundraising arm. To its credit, the LDP has drawn up plans to increase transparency in fund flows — such as posting summaries of campaign finance reports on its Web site. However, that will not be enough to wipe out public cynicism toward “money politics.” Mr. Koizumi himself should demonstrate his leadership to get his party to accept the necessary legislative revision.
Regarding pension reform, the way is open for joint discussions between the LDP-New Komeito coalition and the DPJ now that the reform package enacted by the last regular Diet session has taken effect. The ruling parties are poised to consider changes to the social-security system at a consultative body with the DPJ, acting on a tripartite agreement reached during that session.
The DPJ, meanwhile, is seeking to build an integrated pension system including a new national program, but it won’t be easy to resolve the question of funding, such as how to raise the consumption tax. As for foreign policy issues, Iraq is bound to be a hot subject of debate. No doubt Mr. Koizumi will face tough questions about the war he supported on the basis of flawed U.S. intelligence. A U.S. administration fact-finding team has concluded that no weapons of mass destruction existed at the time of the invasion. It would be a pity if Mr. Koizumi merely echoed U.S. President George W. Bush’s comment that the world is now safer because Saddam Hussein’s regime is gone.
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