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2008年11月 1日 (土)


2008/11/1--The Asahi Shimbun, Oct. 31(IHT/Asahi: November 1,2008)

EDITORIAL: Election postponed


Prime Minister Taro Aso has apparently decided to postpone calling a Lower House election that was expected to be held as early as late November.


While Aso did not address an election date during a news conference Thursday to announce additional measures to revitalize the economy, he said his administration's priority was to respond to the global financial crisis and the economic downturn. This suggests the election won't be held until early next year or later.


Events have transpired quite differently from what Aso had apparently expected.


In an essay he penned for the November issue of the Bungei Shunju monthly magazine immediately after he was elected Liberal Democratic Party president in September, Aso laid out his policy vision.


Disappointed expectations


He wrote the following: "I have decided at the beginning of the Diet session, to present my policy proposals and those of the LDP to (Minshuto) President (Ichiro) Ozawa and urge him to make clear whether he supports or opposes them. Then, I will ask for a new mandate from the people. I think my first mission is to seek the people's verdict as a springboard to launch efforts to rebuild strong politics."


This suggests he planned to dissolve the Lower House for a snap election at the beginning of the Diet session. Things went as expected until he peppered Ozawa, leader of the main opposition Minshuto (Democratic Party of Japan), with questions in his first policy speech. After that, however, events began to take an unexpected turn.


Aso's Cabinet approval ratings failed to rise to expected levels. The real contagion of the financial crisis that started in the United States began to break out, depressing the Tokyo stock market to below post-bubble lows while pushing up the value of the yen against the dollar and the euro. These developments wrecked not only his initial plan but also his backup strategy of dissolving the Lower House immediately after enactment of a supplementary budget to finance measures to deal with surging oil prices and other issues.


Voter surveys by the LDP consistently predicted its defeat despite Aso's repeated pledges to re-energize the economy, providing a strong disincentive for the prime minister to call an early election.


Things are not going as he expected in other areas as well, as his magazine essay indicates.


"The party that wins the (next) election gains the right to initiate policy talks among parties because it has been given the voters' mandate," Aso wrote. "If I have a clear popular mandate, I believe I can end the futile partisan confrontation through tenacious efforts to persuade the opposition camp."


Continued political uncertainty


The LDP-led ruling coalition lost its control of the Upper House through its disastrous defeat in the chamber's election in July 2007, when Shinzo Abe was prime minister. Since then, national politics have been trapped in a crippling gridlock. Abe's successor, Yasuo Fukuda, had extreme difficulty trying to push through his policy initiatives in the face of a twisted Diet, where the Upper House is controlled by the opposition camp.

Obviously, Aso believes that even if the ruling coalition loses its two-thirds dominance in the Lower House in the next election, winning a simple majority would allow the alliance to regain political leadership and push ahead with its policy agenda. That's straight thinking.


But his decision to put off calling an election means he likely will face a much more difficult situation in the Diet. As expectations of an early election have faded, Minshuto has shifted the focus of its political strategy to all-out efforts to block the ruling camp's policy initiatives. Under the current Diet situation, none of the bills opposed by Minshuto in the Upper House can be enacted unless the Lower House passes them for a second time using the ruling camp's two-thirds majority. That means nothing but a replay of the legislative impasse during the Fukuda administration.


It is understandable that Aso is stressing the need to focus on tackling the tough policy challenges confronting the nation for the time being, instead of considering an election. But his policy proposals are also showing increasing signs of confusion within the government.


The new fiscal stimulus package announced Thursday contains many measures that must be implemented as quickly as possible. They include steps to promote full-time employment of nonregular workers, financial support to help small- and medium-sized companies procure the necessary funds to finance their daily operations and measures to stabilize financial markets.


Still, the plan to distribute cash totaling 2 trillion yen to all households appears to be nothing more than an outright budgetary handout to win votes in the election since the economy-lifting effects of it are questionable. The medium-term program for fiscal and tax reforms, which is being drafted under Aso's instructions to clarify how social security programs will be financed, appears to be hastily crafted and half-baked.


At Thursday's news conference, Aso said he will seek to raise the consumption tax rate in three years. We welcome his candor on the need to increase the people's tax burden. But the ruling camp's decision on the issue has been left to year-end tax debate.


In December, the government will put together budget bills for the next fiscal year. It will have to sort out a raft of tough budget issues, including how to fund the scheduled hike in the ratio of state financing of basic pension benefits and allocate tax revenues currently earmarked for road construction after they are shifted into the general revenue account.


Aso now has to grapple with all the challenges he originally planned to start tackling after the Lower House election. He is probably feeling in a hopeless quandary.


If he really wants to break this political deadlock, Aso's only hope is in calling an early election to seek a clear public mandate as he originally intended so that his party can regain political leadership.


The damaging effects of the financial crisis on the real economy will become increasingly pronounced in coming months. The economic hard times are likely to last for several years. It would be bad politics to waste precious fiscal resources on dubious, short-term policy measures that pander to voters.


Early next year, at the latest


The government should map out a grand plan to stoke domestic demand based on a long-term vision and establish a system to implement it. That's Japan's responsibility to the world economy and the only way for the nation to compete favorably with the United States and Europe. It would likely entail considerable pain for the people. That's why this nation badly needs a government that can provide strong and effective leadership.


Some people may argue that creating a month-long political vacuum to hold an election would be unacceptable under current circumstances. But a continuation of the current political confusion under an administration that cannot exert leadership will create an even more serious vacuum. The current situation could cause the nation to lose even more of its international clout.


Aso also plans to seek the passage of a second extra budget to finance the new stimulus package. If so, Aso cannot dissolve the Lower House until the end of the year, at the earliest, or possibly the beginning of the next year. If Aso doesn't call an election by early next year, the political schedule will make it difficult for him to do so in the months ahead because of a series of major scheduled events, such as budget debate in the Diet, the Tokyo metropolitan assembly election and the Group of Eight summit. The tight political schedule could cause the election to be delayed until September, when the term of the current Lower House members expires.


That would be bad for the nation.

Aso should decide to call an election by the year-end or early next year. As for the extra budget, the ruling and opposition camps should work together to separate measures of urgent need from those on which they disagree so that the former can be implemented quickly. At that time, both camps should list the latter on their respective election manifestoes and seek public support in the election. Minshuto should cooperate on this.


That would be the quickest way for the nation to overcome this crisis.



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