It seems that I spoke too soon two posts before. While it seemed Kan managed for once to overcome the obstacles inside his own party, as soon as it was decided to advance the proposal to relax the arms export ban to cabinet Kan found it to be a useful bargaining chip to help ease the passage of the 2011 budget. In order to placate Fukushima Mizuho from the SDP a decision has been made to not include a recommendation to relax the arms export ban in the NDPO to be published, assumedly, very soon.
If the proposal to relax the ban is indeed as important as the government made it out to be, then one could certainly question the wisdom of compromising on a seemingly important issue of national security. But it happens. Japan has lived with the restrictions up until now and a minor delay will not be of significant consequence. Leaving room for future relaxation, the NDPO will instead explicitly state that there are problems related to the expense of domestic procurement and the long-term technological viability of the Japanese defense industry related to arms export restrictions. It still seems very likely that this will happen in the near future.
But one has to question what the DPJ will get out of this – it was done out of consideration for opposition parties such as the SDP and Komeito, but what kind of firm commitment did Kan receive? The SDP has also demanded that Futenma be moved out of prefecture – how much progress are they going to actually “demand” on this, that Kan probably will not be able to deliver? Given past history, can the DPJ rely on the SDP even to pass the 2011 budget?1 Will the SDP also decide that the price of support will also include no changes to the Peace Cooperation Law that is going to be reviewed? (Edited: or now it seems, the SDP is looking to reduce the “sympathy” budget for the US which was left at its current level because Japan, who wanted it reduced, and the US, who wanted it increased, could not come to an agreement – the SDP, or the PNP, are unlikely to miss any tricks here in turning up the pressure on Kan in anyway that might benefit them rhetorically in any forthcoming election – caveat emptor).
Perhaps a more important question is, has the Kan government in light of the last month, become simply nothing more than an extremely inefficient budget passing instrument? If the Kan government did little more in the next 1 year or so than sign Japan up decisively to join the TPP, compile a more strategic budget geared towards economic growth, and effect a reconfiguration of Japan’s security posture,2 these would still be substantive achievements that would symbolically communicate a new, decisive strategic direction internationally for Japan. This looks unlikely at this juncture.
Combine this with even the prospect of a 5% reduction in the corporate tax rate being too much (2-3% seems to be a figure now being thrown around), then it really seems that the government has been reduced to doing nothing more than inefficiently fiddling around the margins of the status quo on some important issues. And we are surely not seeing any new thinking on other issues, such as the environment and looking at the government deficit by trimming unneeded spending. In regards to my previous post on electoral change, in light of the inability for the DPJ to tackle any controversy in its own party, it would not surprise me if the government came back with the very proposal a recent high court ruling said would no longer suffice in terms of rectifying the constitutional imbalance – ie. just adding a few more seats to the urban areas to ensure the ippyou no kakusa does not increase.
It is time to take some risks – if it leads to the break up of the DPJ over an important issue then so be it. They are fast running out of issues where they can, in a Commonwealth colloquialism, “get some runs on the board”. There is a significant worry that long-term damage is being done to the public’s perception of whether alternative parties of any kind can deliver effective governance in Japan. For the first time in opinion polls since “regime change” it seems that the LDP is now gaining as the DPJ loses (although still to a small degree). Indeed one of the most interesting poll questions from the various newspaper polls has consistently been “are you glad that “regime change” happened?” which until recently, even during the lows of support for the DPJ under Hatoyama and pre-Ozawa faceoff Kan, yielded a very high percentage (in most cases over 60%) of respondents in favour. Perhaps only Koizumi has been one of the few to recently (ironically) appreciate the value of the seiken koutai, when he suggested (ja) that if nothing else good has come of it, the DPJ has now come to appreciate the value of the US-Japan alliance. Furthermore, for the most part the public even while not supporting the government, had for a long time emphatically rejected the need for a lower house election anytime soon. This is now starting to even up (ja) – 40 percent believe an election should take place versus 53 percent still against.
While the public overall still (ja) dislikes the LDP more than the DPJ, (with people believing the LDP has not sufficiently reflected on its past misdeeds, contains too many second generation politicians, and its president has not shown any leadership), one wonders how long the DPJ can do very little before this antipathy subsides. As it is, if a strategic vision/message is too much, the DPJ is at least going to have to go to the public at some point in the next 2.5 years with a list of notable achievements that goes beyond “we passed a few uninteresting budgets, painfully.” It is hard to see how the status quo continues (edited: seems I am not the only one – Hatoyama, K., Hatoyama Y., Ozawa, Masuzoe have all become a little more interested in each other lately….) unless Kan demonstrates some leadership and takes risks. If not the need for political realignment becomes all the more pressing considering another election now under the current conditions is unlikely to produce any more clarity. For those who have the most to lose in an election – the younger and new members of the DPJ lower house – it seems inescapable to me that realignment before the next election much better serves their interests than subsequent to it.
1 also noting that technically the DPJ-PNP plus SDP still fall short of the 2/3rd of the lower house needed to pass although they require only a few extra seats – perhaps Yosano et al may play ball
2 including making progress on the arms export ban and showing some leadership by entering into a more honest strategic dialogue on Futenma with the US