Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, speaking at the Liberal Democratic Party’s annual convention Tuesday, again expressed his resolve to privatize postal services, saying that “without constant efforts for reform, possibilities for Japan’s development will be closed.” Mr. Koizumi defines postal privatization as the “centerpiece” of his reform agenda.
The party’s action plan for 2005, however, makes no mention of “privatization” — a sign that Mr. Koizumi’s postal reform initiative is opposed by many members of his own party. The plan, adopted by the convention, merely says that “postal reform must truly contribute to the interests of the people.”
Mr. Koizumi, for his part, shows no signs of relenting. On Monday, he called a meeting of private experts at his official residence to discuss the privatization issue. He is likely to concentrate on this issue during the regular Diet session, which opens this week. To his credit, Mr. Koizumi has given great impetus to the postal reform debate.
The general public, however, is not as enthusiastic as Mr. Koizumi about privatizing postal services. In a Kyodo poll last year, only 12 percent of the respondents gave top priority to “structural reforms such as postal reform,” compared with 33 percent for “pensions, medical care and social security policy” and 27 percent for “economic stimulus measures.”
Mr. Kiyoshi Sasamori, chairman of the Rengo labor federation, echoed public concerns for better social security in his address at the LDP convention. “What the people want most is a drastic overhaul of the social security system,” he said. “If the reform is delayed, we’ll miss the deadline of March 2007.”
The government, anxious to reduce the budget deficit, plans to phase out flat-rate tax cuts for national and local income taxes by then. Moreover, it is considering raising the consumption tax rate in fiscal 2007. It remains unclear, though, specifically how the costs and benefits of Japan’s rapidly aging society can be balanced over the long haul. On this score, Mr. Koizumi has a lot of explaining to do.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of LDP’s founding. The action plan, however, reveals a wide gap between reality and rhetoric. It calls for, among other things, the drafting of a constitutional reform bill and a revision of the Fundamental Education Law — the same goals that were laid out in a party platform half a century ago.
In particular, the call for educational reform carries a sense of urgency. The action plan says the LDP must “commit itself to achieving reform this year.” In reality, however, the LDP cannot change the education law — or the Constitution, for that matter — without ironing out the considerable differences that exist between it, as the No. 1 ruling party, and its coalition partner, New Komeito.
Regarding policy toward North Korea, the action plan says that “the imposition of severe economic sanctions will be pursued unless the situation improves” with respect to the abductee issue. Here, too, Mr. Koizumi, who takes a cautious stand on the sanctions issue, is at odds with hardliners in his party.
The LDP will confront other contentious issues during the marathon Diet session, including the issue of “politics and money,” which came to a head last year following revelations about a dubious campaign donation that the party’s largest faction had received from a national dentists group.
Other issues include the conflict in Iraq and its possible impact on the continued deployment of Self-Defense Forces personnel in southern Iraq, as well as the planned reorganization of U.S. forces in Japan. One other item on the agenda calls for special attention: measures to prepare for natural disasters.
Mr. Koizumi has often been criticized for “sloganeering.” Some of the slogans, such as “no reform, no growth,” hit the nail right on the head, but with his reform initiatives producing few tangible results, many people are disappointed in his leadership. In fact, his approval ratings have dropped markedly since he took office in April 2001.
In his address, Mr. Koizumi said: “The Liberal Democratic Party does not represent selected regions and groups. It is a national party dedicated to the development and prosperity of the entire nation.” This is a serious message that the prime minister himself must consider deeply.
The LDP convention has exposed a lack of policy unity between the party and the government. The gap between the government and public opinion must be wider still. Postal reform, however important, is only one issue among many. The challenge for the LDP in the regular Diet session is to promote comprehensive debates so that a broad national consensus can be forged on this and other divisive issues.
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