The pensions issue strikes again

The big news of the day is the sharp decline in the Fukuda cabinet’s popularity, as found in a Kyodo poll (see articles in the Sankei Shimbun and the Tokyo Shimbun).

The poll found an 11.7% drop in the cabinet’s favorable rating, to 35.3%. The unfavorable rating experienced a corresponding 11% rise to 47.6%. The overwhelming reason for the reversal appears to be anger over the latest reports on the ongoing pensions scandal — but the consequences are widespread. The poll recorded a drop in support for the new anti-terror bill, with those opposed now outnumbering those in favor 46.7% to 38.8%. The poll also found a sizable plurality (44.7%) favor a DPJ-centered coalition government, compared to only 28.5% for an LDP-centered government.

This is unquestionably bad news for the government, because the public — noncommittal for the past several months — may finally be making up its mind about Mr. Fukuda. The problems at the Social Insurance Agency are by no means Mr. Fukuda’s fault, having existed long before the formation of his government. And Mr. Fukuda, unlike the hapless Mr. Abe, has not been tone deaf in his response to the latest revelations. He is not oblivious to the significance of this issue for the LDP (is there a member of the party who isn’t grimly aware of the pension scandal’s significance?), but he is, it seems, powerless.

On cue, the DPJ has stepped up its pressure on the government. Speaking in Yamanashi prefecture on Sunday, Ozawa Ichiro castigated the LDP for failing to live up to its promises on pensions. Hatoyama Yukio, meanwhile, revisited the question of whether the DPJ will push for an Upper House censure motion on NHK, suggesting that it will depend on public opinion. This is nothing new, but it takes on new significance in light of the latest public opinion poll.

With another month left in the Diet session, there is plenty of time for the situation to change. The latest poll results could be a temporary blip. An eleven-point drop is substantial, but it is not a free fall, not yet anyway. And the DPJ must be careful not to overreach, because it is no less sensitive to the vicissitudes of public opinion (and by the admission of its own leaders, not ready to contest an early election).

The task for the DPJ is to use the next month to begin building momentum going into the regular Diet session. A censure motion, and the question of how to respond should the government ignore it, could, as acknowledged by Mr. Hatoyama, undermine the DPJ’s public support.

I still think the DPJ needs to rise above merely exposing the government’s numerous and varied failings, elevating its critique into a full-fledged vision for post-LDP government rooted in transparency and accountability, but I am remain skeptical that the DPJ will follow this course over the next month.

Should the government ignore a censure motion, I do hope that the DPJ refrains from walking out of Diet deliberations, an option mentioned by Mr. Hatoyama. One of the DPJ’s aims should be to make Diet deliberations more meaningful — and I fail to see how non-participation serves this end.

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