Reverting to form

The responses of both the LDP and the DPJ to the unfolding pensions scandal are illustrative, depressingly, of how little the Japanese political system has changed.

The LDP’s response has been nothing short of all-out panic. With Upper House elections little more than a month away, the LDP is trying to kill this issue as quickly as possible. Cabinet and LDP officials, from Prime Minister Abe down, have taken to making effusive apologies for the scandal that has sparked fears among the Japanese people that they will not receive their pension payments. (Yesterday it was Health Minister Yanagisawa; today it was Internal Affairs Minister Suga.)

In an article in Yomiuri‘s “Scanner” feature, meanwhile, it seems that I was right to think that this election will not be about constitution revision after all: “Until now, the prime minister has stressed three times his thinking that constitution revision is the main point of contention in the Upper Election elections; he had expressed no particular intention that the pensions problem should become a point of contention. But lately, in the face of a headwind, policy is changing.”

Instead, it seems that the new direction is to act quickly to stifle the pensions issue, and then talk about innocuous issues with broad support (i.e., the abductions issue). Another article from Yomiuri, which also does not appear to be online, reinforces the idea that Abe will be talking a lot about abductions in the coming weeks — in part because Abe’s special advisor on abductions, Nakayama Kyoko, will be running as a proportional representation candidate next month. At the same time, former Prime Minister Koizumi has hit the campaign trail, campaigning for a former member of his cabinet. It seems that Abe’s people are, appropriately, more afraid of a drubbing next month than in having Abe overshadowed by his predecessor, and so Koizumi will be wheeled out in the hope that he will be able to rally support for his “children” and help the LDP retain their seats.

In the midst of all of the turmoil, it seems that whatever independence Abe had, for better or worse, is being subsumed by the LDP’s burning need to win elections. The old hands seem to be taking control of the situation. It was for this reason that one should not be too quick to talk about how the policy making system has changed. In good times, with high public support, the prime minister may have a free hand to initiate some policies of choice, but when things turn bad, the leash is tugged and the system reverts to form; this happened with Koizumi to a certain extent as his popularity fell.

Abe’s powerlessness will no doubt increase as he checks out of the country to hobnob with his fellow world leaders at the G8 summit in Germany. “Go on, play statesman with your friends, junior,” the LDP bosses are no doubt saying, “we’ll take care of everything while you’re gone.”

Meanwhile, the DPJ’s role in all this has been depressing in an entirely different way. After months of dithering about how to contend the Upper House elections, the DPJ has sprung into action — but only after being handed an issue on a silver platter. Even if the DPJ manages to ride this issue to a major victory next month, its deficiencies as an opposition party will remain. Nevertheless, the mood within the party seems buoyant, and the party is straining to exploit this opportunity in any way possible.

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