Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s campaign to privatize the postal-services system has entered a crucial stage now that the Lower House has set up an ad hoc committee on government-sponsored privatization bills. The establishment of the panel attests to the prime minister’s resolve to get the package through the Diet during the current regular session.
The 45-member committee, headed by Mr. Toshihiro Nikai, head of the Liberal Democratic Party’s election bureau, includes Mr. Taku Yamasaki, a special assistant to Mr. Koizumi, who will act as the party’s chief negotiator with the opposition parties.
The going promises to be rough. The Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition group, and the Social Democratic Party, are dead set against the package. Both parties boycotted Friday’s Lower House session, which approved the coalition proposal to create the committee. They are planning to boycott all deliberations in the Diet.
Those kind of negative tactics would only give the ruling parties an excuse for pushing the postal debate unilaterally, without the full participation of opposition parties. Both the DPJ and the SDP should present their own plans for postal reform and join the debate in a constructive manner.
The package calls for privatizing Japan Post in April 2007 and creating four companies (mail, savings, insurance and network operation) under a holding company. The government’s original plan to make a clean break with the savings and insurance companies has suffered a setback, allowing for some form of integrated management.
The government has made two important compromises with the LDP. First, the holding company would be allowed to keep indefinitely some of its equity stakes in the companies. Second, the companies would be allowed to hold each other’s shares.
These compromises could fetter the freedom of the privatized companies. Many LDP legislators, however, remain staunchly opposed to the government package. Some hardliners are rejecting the very idea of privatization. The LDP, however, it should be remembered, pledged to privatize the postal services in the Lower House election of 2003 and again in the Upper House election of 2004.
Opinion polls indicate that the public is not keenly interested in postal reform. Still, Mr. Koizumi’s continued approval ratings of over 40 percent can be taken as proof that postal privatization itself has broad public support.
The government, though, had a difficult time introducing the package in the Diet. The LDP’s Executive Council, unable to give the green light, took the unusual step of approving only the submission, not the contents, of the package. It will not pass the Lower House if at least 46 LDP dissenters vote no.
If the legislation is actually voted down, the Koizumi administration could be forced to either resign or call a snap general election. Already politicians close to Mr. Koizumi are hinting at a surprise election, while Mr. Koizumi himself has replaced a ranking home affairs ministry official who is reportedly critical of his privatization plan.
Mr. Nikai, the chairman of the ad hoc committee, is not a particularly close ally of Mr. Koizumi. But, as head of the LDP’s election bureau, he is in a position to use his influence in the screening of candidates and thereby roll back anti-privatization forces. Mr. Yamasaki, former LDP vice president, enjoys a close personal relationship with Mr. Koizumi.
The DPJ, which in the past has twice boycotted deliberations on issues of “politics and money,” seems to be again trying to assert itself by taking a confrontational approach. In both cases, though, it joined the discussions after a brief period of time. A debate boycott is a dead-end tactic that will likely further alienate the public.
Mr. Katsuya Okada, the DPJ leader, has said time and again that his party is “preparing to take over the reins of government” from the LDP-New Komeito coalition. In the last two national elections, the DPJ made impressive gains largely because it had presented bold plans to privatize highway corporations and streamline the pension system.
But the leading opposition party is not as positive about postal privatization. Its official statement says vaguely that “managerial reform should be promoted while maintaining Japan Post for the time being.” It makes no mention of “privatization,” perhaps in deference to the labor unions that support the party.
The ruling-opposition wrangling over the privatization package has already disrupted debates on social-security reforms, such as revamping the pension system. The Diet must begin a full-dress debate on the privatization bills as soon as possible. Further delays will only worsen the legislative logjam.
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