Administrative reform is a wedge issue after all

In this post earlier this month, I asked whether administrative reform, the subject of a private consultative commission at the Kantei, was the ideal wedge issue for the DPJ to wield against the LDP.

At the time, the DPJ had yet to elevate the issue to the top of its talking points. It appears, however, that the opportunity still exists for the DPJ to exploit the issue to its advantage.

Following the publication of the advisory group’s report (discussed here), Watanabe Yoshimi, minister for administrative reform, has pushed hard for the implementation of the report’s recommendation, including the creation of a central personnel agency. The cabinet held its first meeting on administrative reform Wednesday, at which it was clear that Mr. Watanabe is badly outnumbered within the cabinet. Mainichi reports that more than half the cabinet opposes the creation of the personnel agency — and quotes one member of the cabinet describing Mr. Watanabe’s “performance” as “loathed by everyone.” (As an act of protest, Mr. Watanabe covered his mouth with a mask and refused to talk to reporters after the meeting.)

It seems that administrative reform is exacerbating tensions within an already divided LDP. It appears that this issue might prompt a mini-revival of Koizumism: Mainichi reports that Kokka Senryaku Honbu [National Strategy Headquarters], an LDP research group dedicated to keeping the flame of the Koizumi revolution burning (which counts Mr. Watanabe as a member), is entering into battle on behalf of the administrative reform package. Mainichi describes the fight as being between pro-bureaucrat and anti-bureaucrat groups, but it seems to be that it is also about ins and outs. Mainichi points to the involvement of Shiozaki Yasuhisa, Mr. Abe’s chief cabinet secretary, and Nakagawa Hidenao, former LDP secretary-general to suggest that this is a defense of the “Koizumi-Abe line,” but I think there’s one name too many in that phrase. Mr. Abe made very clear during his time as prime minister that Mr. Koizumi’s battles were not his battles. It remains the Koizumi line. Period.

The Koizumians are without question the “outs”: their ideas have been rejected by the party leadership since the moment Mr. Koizumi took his final (?) bow. Many of them — the Koizumi Kids — have been disregarded by the party leadership in its plans for the next general election, to the point that Takebe Tsutomu, LDP secretary-general under Mr. Koizumi, has been reduced to exhorting party leaders to “protect all of the Koizumi children.” The fight over administrative reform may turn out to be a last-ditch effort by the marginalized Koizumians to force the LDP to take them and their reformist ideals seriously. Is it a fight they can win? And if they lose, is it a prelude to the formation of a free-market, pro-deregulation Koizumian party (probably following the next general election, although with Mr. Koizumi who knows).

Both Prime Minister Fukuda and Chief Cabinet Secretary Machimura appear decidedly reluctant to give administrative reform their full-throated approval. Mr. Machimura in particular seems especially opposed to provisions restricting contact between bureaucrats and backbenchers. However, to reject the proposals pertaining to contact between politicians and bureaucrats would effectively gut the advisory group’s plan.

This is all fertile ground for the DPJ to exploit, especially in combination with the Fukuda cabinet’s pusillanimity in the face of the Road Tribe. The message is clear: the days of “structural reform without sanctuary” are long gone. The LDP under Mr. Fukuda will fight to preserve every last privilege for the bureaucracy, for its backbenchers, for its construction company supporters — everyone but the Japanese people. The DPJ should be drawing up its own legislation on this, borrowing from the government’s own advisory group as needed and appealing to pro-reform members of the LDP to help the DPJ maneuver this plan through the Diet this spring. The DPJ should be forcing LDP members to choose between loyalty to their principles and loyalty to their party — just as Mr. Koizumi repeatedly foisted the same dilemma upon members of the DPJ during his tenure.

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