Thrust and parry on Afghanistan

Prime Minister Fukuda and members of his cabinet were grilled in Upper House Budget Committee deliberations on Monday, and continued their defense of Japan’s participation in coalition activities in the Indian Ocean on grounds of Japan’s obligations to the international community as the second largest economic power.

The sparring in the Upper House this week comes in the midst of results of a new opinion poll by Asahi, which show a small gain in support for the refueling mission since last month’s poll, with support rising from 35% to 39%, with 44% opposed. For an Asahi poll, that seems to be a decidedly close margin. At the same time, however, the poll recorded marked opposition to a new law authorizing the mission, with 28% in favor and 48% opposed to a new law.

The poll also contains some good news for Mr. Fukuda’s hopes for a long tenure. While it recorded a slight drop in support for his cabinet from 53% to 47% and a slight rise in its unfavorable rating from 27% to 30%, the poll also recorded a sharp drop (50 to 32%) in respondents who think that a snap election should be called quickly, and a similarly sharp rise (43 to 60%) who think that it’s not necessary to call a general election soon. The poll also recorded a nine-point drop (41 to 32%) in support for a DPJ-centered coalition government, with support for an LDP-centered coalition holding steady at 33%.

Meanwhile, in advance of the scheduled October 17th cabinet decision, the government has agreed that the new law will apply for but one year, a concession by the LDP to Komeito — whose rank-and-file membership is as or more dissatisfied than ever with the now eight-year-old coalition with the LDP. I would expect more concessions to Komeito on legislation in the months to come. What choice does the LDP have? Nothing the LDP can do will probably make the Komeito rank-and-file happy, but the LDP at least needs to give the Komeito leadership something that can be presented to the rank-and-file as a positive outcome of the coalition.

But while the government continues the work of restoring the damage inflicted by Mr. Abe, the DPJ is lurching forward, seemingly making up strategy as it goes along. The DPJ leadership has reportedly decided to submit its own version of a law authorizing Japanese contributions in and around Afghanistan — but the content of said bill remains to be decided. Mr. Ozawa, of course, wants the bill to mandate a JSDF contribution to ISAF, but the compromise position seems to be civilian participation in Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT).

It’s unclear to me why Japan can’t do both — and that might be what happens, particularly if the DPJ bill only mandates a civilian contribution to Afghanistan reconstruction. Of course, LDP approval of the DPJ plan won’t be enough to buy DPJ acquiescence on the refueling mission.

I still find it difficult to see how the DPJ can “win.” Winning in this case means making passage of the bill over an Upper House veto politically untenable for the government, but it is not clear to me how the DPJ can reverse the trend in the government’s favor on this issue. In Budget Committee deliberations, the DPJ seems to have been unable to score a direct hit on Mr. Fukuda, who if he keeps this up may earn a reputation as a “teflon” prime minister. The muddled DPJ response certainly can’t help, particularly compared to the government’s straightforward, low-risk plan that simply calls for continuing what the MSDF has been doing for six years. Easy to understand, and unambiguous, as long as the government can continue to bat away allegations about Japanese fuel being used for the US war in Iraq.

UPDATE — It looks like Jun Okumura and I have similar takes on the situation.

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