Fukuda under pressure

A council of LDP, Komeito, and cabinet officials have conferred and agreed to a plan to phase out the road construction fund, based largely on the plan mooted by Prime Minister Fukuda in the waning days of March.

As anticipated, the plan calls for shifting gasoline tax revenue from the road construction fund to the general fund from fiscal 2009. As Mainichi notes, however, while the government says it will be shifting “the full amount” in the general fund, there is a giant loophole in the government-ruling parties agreement in the form of the phrase “roads judged essential will be steadily maintained,” which will enable the doro zoku to preserve their empire and limit the amount of revenue shifted to the general fund. Asahi raises similar questions, wondering whether the “grand reform” Mr. Fukuda claims to be delivering is actually realizable: “If it is implemented this time, it is a huge reform that will transform LDP politics — but there is strong opposition from the doro zoku and the transport ministry.”

Despite these concerns — and despite the plan’s neither having been approved by the LDP’s executive council nor having been approved via an official cabinet decision — the governing coalition will present its plan to the opposition next week in the hope of reaching an agreement across the aisle. Whether such an agreement is possible remains to be seen.

According to Sankei, Ozawa Ichiro has made an LDP general council and cabinet decisions prerequisites for entering into negotiations over the new plan. Mainichi suggests that the DPJ is divided on this issue, although it is vague about who exactly is calling for a “prudent” stance on the road construction issue. I would argue, however, that Mr. Ozawa is on firm ground on this issue — and beyond that, he cannot afford to appear soft lest he further undermine whatever remains of his standing with the party’s reformists (who are looking for excuses to throw their weight behind a candidate to run against Mr. Ozawa in September).

By Mainichi‘s own reckoning, the LDP remains horrendously divided, with Mr. Fukuda pressured by the party’s young reformists — who, in addition to suggesting that they’ll vote against the reimplementation of the temporary tax, have like the DPJ called for a cabinet decision and LDP executive council decision on the prime minister’s plan — and the doro zoku, who are not particularly pleased with Mr. Fukuda’s plan. Naturally the prime minister is reluctant to go to both the cabinet and the LDP general council with his plan, where he will face strident and implacable opposition. As such, Nikai Toshihiro, chairman of the executive council has dismissed both demands, stating “Why is a decision in the executive council necessary?” (And Mr. Machimura thinks the DPJ lacks democracy?) On top of the divisions within the Tokyo party is the division between Mr. Fukuda and the party’s many members in prefectural assemblies, whose political fortunes rest on their ability to secure funding from Tokyo for projects in their constituencies.

I think the DPJ is in a good position here. For the sake of party unity, Mr. Ozawa can continue to stonewall without risking too much electorally. The more protracted, public, and messy the fight over Mr. Fukuda’s plan gets, the better it is for the DPJ. The more aggressively the zoku giin fight to preserve their privileges — and the more Mr. Fukuda bends to them to save his plan — the easier it will be for the DPJ to paint the LDP as retrograde and anti-reformist. And the more Mr. Fukuda pushes for his plan, the deeper he drives the wedge between reformists and zoku giin, Tokyo leadership and prefectural party, bringing the party closer to fracturing.

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