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With the Dec. 31 deadline for compiling the fiscal 2006 budget approaching, the government recently made a series of decisions, including placing a heavier financial burden on people aged 70 years or older receiving medical service, the creation of a single public-lending institution out of the current eight government-affiliated financial institutions, an abolition of 4 trillion yen in government subsidies to local governments and a transfer of 3 trillion yen tax revenues to local governments.

In the past this time of the year was marked by intense competition among ruling party politicians, bureaucrats and lobbyists for a larger share of the budget. But this year’s budgetary decision making has been eerily smooth. It appears that the “tribe” politicians representing vested parochial interests have fallen nearly silent in the face of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s uncompromising ways. Such a situation has its positive side, but at the same time it means that politicians have made important decisions without first engaging in active discussions. This political “hollowing out” should concern those who believe that serious and vigorous discussions representing a wide range of opinions is the foundation of a healthy democracy.

Since winning a landslide victory in the Lower House elections in September, Mr. Koizumi has greatly strengthened his power in the Liberal Democratic Party and in the process almost silenced all opposition within the party. During the election campaign, he employed rhetoric — “Without postal reform, what kind of reform is possible?” — and turned the election into a referendum on postal reform, his pet theme — and into a confidence vote on himself. Since the LDP won an overwhelming victory, he has been able to behave as if solely he, rather than his party, received a mandate from the voters.

Mr. Koizumi also fielded “assassin” candidates in constituencies where intraparty opponents of postal reform were running. This and his severe punishment of “rebellious” LDP members continue to influence the behavior of other LDP members. Some politicians find themselves the target of his stinging criticism, even today. Mr. Koizumi, who at this point does not want to discuss the possibility of raising the consumption tax, criticized Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki and Economic and Fiscal Policy Minister Kaoru Yosano, who mentioned the possibility of such a tax raise, by saying that their remarks “are out of tune.” Apparently, many LDP politicians are afraid to make remarks that may offend Mr. Koizumi.

Symbolic of their reticence is the near silence over Mr. Koizumi’s fifth visit to the Yasukuni Shrine on Oct. 17. Former Prime Ministers Yasuhiro Nakasone and Kiichi Miyazawa, Lower House Speaker Yohei Kono and former LDP Secretary General Koichi Kato voiced their concerns, but very few other LDP politicians did the same. This despite the fact that Mr. Koizumi’s repeated visits to the shrine, which enshrines 14 Class-A war criminals as well as Japan’s 2.46 million war dead, have strained Japan’s relations with China and South Korea.

It is also strange that only a few politicians have expressed meaningful opinions on the ongoing scandal involving the fabrication of quake-resistance data in designs for condominiums and hotels. LDP Secretary General Tsutomu Takebe made a problematic statement after the scandal surfaced — “If you concentrate on finding out who was the bad guy, the whole condominium industry will collapse.” But almost no politicians criticized his words. Is this because Mr. Koizumi has remained almost silent over the scandal? Whatever the prime minister’s opinion may be, politicians must speak out on such a grave case that affects the welfare of many people.

The compilation of the fiscal 2006 budget is entering its final stage as the yearend approaches. But the budget is not being actively debated within the LDP. In the past, politicians representing vested interests were vociferous in the budget-compiling season. Although their pressure sometimes led to undesirable decisions, negotiations between them and bureaucrats had helped to clarify important points in the issues concerned. Expressing opposing views and finding a compromise in a transparent manner is the basis of democracy.

Commenting on the current situation within the LDP, Mr. Miyazawa said that free discussion is being strangled. Mr. Nakasone said that politicians are losing their independence and just kowtowing before the Prime Minister’s Official Residence. He also warned the LDP against pandering to populism, in which priority is given to a theatrical effect, rather than to explanations and public discussions. Although Mr. Miyazawa and Mr. Nakasone have retired from the Diet, attention should be paid to the observations and opinions of these veteran leaders who have played crucial roles in Japan’s postwar politics.

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