The Diet has extended its regular session by 55 days through Aug. 13 to continue the debate on proposed postal reforms. The extension gives Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi a make-or-break opportunity to realize his cherished dream of putting the unwieldy postal system under private management.
Speculation is already rife that the package will be put to a vote in the Lower House immediately after the July 3 Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election. The ruling coalition, particularly the Liberal Democratic Party, appears to be giving too much attention to postal reforms. It should spend more time addressing other major domestic and foreign policy issues.
Cynics may call this session a “hollow Diet,” for little substantive debate has been conducted so far. This is especially true for the central issue of postal privatization. Prime Minister Koizumi keeps “talking up” the issue, which he describes as the “centerpiece” of his structural reform agenda. Yet he seems to have wasted much time during this “postal-reform session.”
The Diet opened in January, yet it was not until late April that the postal package was introduced. It took another month before debate began. The reason for the delay was political infighting within the LDP, which was, and still is, deeply divided over how, even whether, to privatize the postal services. While the debate is bogged down, LDP legislators are reportedly busy trying to hammer out a compromise.
Mr. Koizumi is primarily responsible for the deadlock. So far he has not provided a convincing explanation for why the postal system must be privatized. The Diet extension is in itself no guarantee that the package will pass. It will not pass if at least 46 LDP legislators vote “no.” In a way, the extension reflects the fact that the party leadership, from Mr. Koizumi on down, is unsure about the prospects for approval.
The opposition is also responsible for the “hollow” debate. In particular, the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition group, has delayed debates through repeated boycotts. By resorting to such tactics, the party has painted itself into a corner, thus restricting its own freedom of action.
It is odd that the DPJ, while opposing the postal package tooth and nail, has not presented its own reform plan. Opponents within the LDP have put forward a proposal. The reason for DPJ “inaction” seems to lie largely in electoral politics. With the Koizumi side hinting at a snap general election in the event the package fails to pass, the Democrats appear unwilling to go out of their way to provoke the LDP leadership. It is likely that their halfhearted attitude is making the Diet “dull” to the advantage of the ruling parties.
The extension means that this regular session will last 205 days — a long enough period to process a range of key bills on the agenda. The postal privatization bill, however important, is only one among many. If its passage turns out to be the only major achievement of the session, the Diet surely will be criticized for being both inefficient and ineffective.
The list of pending bills is long. It includes measures related to people’s lives, such as a revision to the elderly nursing insurance law and a proposal to support the self-reliant efforts of disabled individuals. Pension system reform is also a key item, yet the council created to deal with the subject under an agreement between the ruling and opposition parties is effectively closed.
The issue of “politics and money” is also up in the air. Much remains unknown about the 100 million yen donation that the LDP’s largest faction, once headed by former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, allegedly received from the Japan Dentists Federation. The Diet has yet to hear sworn testimony from people involved.
No less important are diplomatic issues. Among the most important are disputes with China and South Korea over Mr. Koizumi’s annual visits to Yasukuni Shrine and Japan’s perception of its wartime history. Other issues include Japan’s bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council and the nuclear standoff with North Korea.
Foreign policy issues are often overshadowed by domestic issues in parliamentary exchanges. The extended session should give Mr. Koizumi extra time to better explain his policies and positions, particularly his attitude toward Yasukuni, which enshrines convicted Class-A war criminals among Japan’s war dead, and on his perception of the nation’s militaristic past. The Diet, it should be noted, has a vital role to play in forming public opinion on foreign policy matters.
The question for the Diet now is how best to deal with domestic and diplomatic issues over the next 55 days. At stake is the ability, not just the willingness, of both the ruling and opposition parties to find common ground.
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