The DPJ gets its groove back (for now)

The past six months in Japanese politics have seen some surprising and unexpected events and reversals of momentum — and it looks as if we’re in the midst of the latest shift in momentum. The DPJ, after a shaky start to the current Diet session following the government’s deft maneuvering on the MSDF refueling mission (and a last-minute ambush by the other opposition parties), now appears to have gotten its act together and is pushing hard on the government on multiple fronts. It’s beginning to look a lot like August 2007.

The Atago incident is turning into a major boon for the DPJ. As Jun Okumura notes, intensifying the push for Ishiba Shigeru to resign as defense minister may stymie the government’s efforts to pass the budget by Friday, thus ensuring that it will pass even if the HC rejects it: “The less time that there is, the more inclined the LDP will be to make concessions and the less willing the DPJ will be to oblige.” Of course, it looked like Mr. Ishiba would be immune to DPJ pressure, thanks to a vote of confidence from the prime minister and his status as probably the one man in the LDP willing (and possibly able) to reform the woefully deficient defense establishment. Even as recently as Tuesday, when Mr. Ishiba faced questioning in the HR Security Committee, he seemed confident dismissing calls for his resignation over this incident. On Wednesday, however, more reports emerged pointing to failures in the gathering and sharing of information between the Defense Ministry and the Coast Guard, implicating Mr. Ishiba’s leadership in response to the incident.

Mainichi reports that pressure is now coming from within the LDP, especially LDP leaders in the HC. The prime minister continues to stand by Mr. Ishiba, but it seems that my initial impression was correct: Mr. Ishiba will likely be forced out. Presumably his replacement will be someone less likely to rattle cages and therefore more acceptable to both the LDP and the defense establishment. In short, despite this scandal, it will be business as usual in Ichigaya, once Mr. Ishiba is out of the picture.

Meanwhile the compromise on the leadership succession at the Bank of Japan that everyone — including myself — expected to occur remains elusive. The government decided Tuesday to delay the official presentation of Muto Toshiro, the government’s nominee, until next week. With just under three weeks until Mr. Fukui’s term expires, there is still time for the LDP and the DPJ to come to an agreement and avoid having a vacancy at the BOJ, but the DPJ is clearly content to make the government wait, to make the point that unlike on other issues, the Fukuda government has no choice but to work with the DPJ. This appears to please Mr. Ozawa to no end. As I suspected, the DPJ may eventually cooperate — but it has no reason to follow the government’s desired timetable. Mr. Fukuda, at least according to this Asahi article, sounds a bit exasperated. When asked about Mr. Ozawa’s comments on Mr. Muto (“I also know a lot from his time at the Finance Ministry, but whether he is appropriate as BOJ president is a different matter”), Mr. Fukuda said, “He’s not really saying anything. We have no choice but to wait.”

Finally, on the budget, the DPJ, together with the SDP and the PNP, absented themselves Wednesday from HR Budget and Finance and Monetary subcommittees to protest the government’s plan to pass the FY 2008 budget on Friday. Hatoyama Yukio described the government’s plan as making “scrap paper” of the LDP-DPJ agreement negotiated by Messrs. Eda and Kono, and warned of consequences in the battle over the BOJ succession. This afternoon the opposition will return to the Budget Committee to debate the special road construction fund. On Wednesday the DPJ announced the basic principles for its own legislation the fund: (1) repealing the temporary gasoline tax; (2) folding the special fund into the general fund; and (3) abolishing the “burden charge” for local communities for state-mandated projects.

Thanks to Mr. Koizumi, the DPJ now has less reason to compromise on this issue than ever. Mainichi reports, “…There is also the hope that the LDP is being rocked internally by the appearance of remarks in favor of the ‘general fundization’ [of road construction funds] from former Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro and others. Kan Naoto, DPJ acting president, emphasized at a press conference on the 27th: ‘Mr. Koizumi’s opinion is close to the DPJ’s opinion. If he wants to get us to do reforms that he could not do himself, we welcome that. We also want to urge the LDP’s young members who aim for true reform to rise to action.”

It looks like the DPJ is finally learning to use “reform” as a wedge issue to get the upper hand in parliamentary battles.

As we have seen, the momentum could easily shift again, but for the moment, the DPJ, which has nothing to lose at this point by taking the mantle of reform from Mr. Koizumi, has painted the government into a corner. On every issue the LDP is playing not to lose.

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