With the passage of the 2005 government budget Wednesday, the Diet effectively ended the first half of its 150-day regular session. The biggest issue in the second half is the proposed privatization of postal services — the main pillar of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s reform initiative. To succeed, he must adhere to his professed principles of privatization.
Other contentious issues include an overhaul of the public pension system. The ruling and opposition parties are expected to begin full-dress talks after the Lower House by-elections in late April. The exchanges so far have been lackluster. People are looking for hard-hitting debates during the rest of the session. Legislators should respond as best they can.
Postal reform would entail drastic changes. First, 270,000 employees of Japan Post, a public corporation, would become private workers. As a result, the number of national civil servants would drop 30 percent.
Postal savings and insurance services would be treated in the same way as private banks and insurers. That would result in a massive shift of funds — 350 trillion yen (equivalent to one-fourth of the total financial assets held by Japanese individuals) — from the public to the private sector.
The government says post offices can be managed freely like convenience stores. This possibility, though, raises concerns that commercial considerations could drive post offices in depopulated areas and on remote islands into extinction. Private banks are wary of possible business encroachment. It remains to be seen whether local postmasters and postal unions will keep up their traditional role as a vote-getting machine.
Prime Minister Koizumi, the chief advocate of postal privatization, should exercise strong leadership to ensure that the reform package now being negotiated between the government and the Liberal Democratic Party measures up to his stated aims of privatization. He should avoid halfhearted compromise like the one that gave highway privatization a bad name.
Debates in the first half of the Diet session were marked largely by a lack of confrontation, except for a two-day boycott staged by opposition members protesting against Mr. Koizumi’s policy speech in January. After that, discussions proceeded smoothly, more or less, paving the way for the earlier-than-usual vote on the budget.
“People just don’t know what the Diet has been doing these past months,” Ms. Mizuho Fukushima, head of the Social Democratic Party said in recalling parliamentary exchanges during the first half of the session. “It is a pity that Diet debate has not generated the kind of interest that Livedoor and Nippon Broadcasting System (involved in a takeover battle) have produced.”
Symbolic of the low-key nature of debate was the low attendance in the Lower House budget and foreign affairs committees — so low, in fact, that lack of a quorum at one point brought proceedings to a temporary halt while officials looked for errant members.
Opposition parties blame the LDP for the lack of vigor. With a postal package yet to be completed, they say, the ruling party has “played it safe” by putting off debate on every controversial bill. But the LDP cannot continue playing for time. Sooner or later, earnest debate must begin on key bills, including the postal-reform measures. It is time for the opposition to show its mettle.
Aside from postal and pension reforms, key items on the agenda include bills to revise the nursing-care system for the elderly and to regulate political funds. New rules for campaign finance are considered essential in light of the alleged coverup of a 100 million yen donation to the LDP’s largest faction.
Beyond that, legislators face a number of immediate diplomatic and political issues. Diplomacy toward North Korea — involving its nuclear-weapons program and the fate of missing Japanese abductees — appears to be making little progress, while relations with South Korea are strained over a territorial dispute involving the Takeshima (Dokdo in Korean) islets and certain passages in Japanese history textbooks.
Relations with the United States remain essentially strong and stable, but the government is finding itself in a hot spot as it tries to meet a tough U.S. request for an early resumption of beef imports. Talks on the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan are not making progress.
Mr. Koizumi needs to clearly explain his policies on these issues. Meanwhile, the ruling and opposition parties should challenge points with lively debate so that the Diet can produce satisfactory results during the remainder of its marathon session.
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