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2010年4月27日 (火)


Confusion over highway tolls the latest drama by bungling Hatoyama gov't

The rift between Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Minister Seiji Maehara and Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) Secretary-General Ichiro Ozawa is a wide-open secret. And while the discord between the two appeared to flare up over the issue of highway tolls last week, there were plenty of goings-on prior to the recent spat.

On the afternoon of Dec. 24, 2009, a secret meeting took place at the Prime Minister's Office. The main actors in attendance were Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano, Maehara, and Ozawa's right-hand man, DPJ Senior Vice Secretary General Yoshimitsu Takashima.

In a petition submitted earlier to the prime minister, Ozawa had appealed for a change in the toll discount system so that funds left over as a result could be used toward the construction of new highways -- undoubtedly as a ploy to secure the DPJ's victory in the upcoming Upper House election.

The purpose of the December meeting was to confirm the government's intention over the party's request. In the written agreement was a section that said: "the national government will provide support to expressway companies" with regards to future maintenance and development of highways. This could be interpreted as an obligation of the government to pump public funds into the construction of unprofitable roads.

Takashima pressed the other participants to sign the agreement, but Maehara refused and left the meeting. Hirano and Takashima signed.

The DPJ took over the reins of government with the promise to realize toll-free highways. In the face of current financial difficulties, however, this has yet to be realized. The government has instituted free tolls in limited areas as "social experiments" meant to illuminate the effects of toll-free highways, but these have turned to be pitiful in magnitude due to inadequate funds. If the DPJ-led government were to begin building unprofitable roads now, it would be taking back its election platform to value "people above concrete."

Maehara reluctantly began preparing a law amendment that would funnel funds from the discount system to the construction of roads. A mercilessly scaled-back toll-free experiment was announced on Feb. 2. The planned replacement of the 1,000-yen maximum toll with a maximum 2,000-yen one was announced on April 9.

Part two of the drama began on April 21 with Ozawa's visit to the Prime Minister's Office for an official discussion with ruling coalition leaders, Hatoyama, and Hirano. "A raise in tolls is unacceptable," barked Ozawa. Maehara was not in attendance.

According to the current toll discount that was developed during the reign of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Komeito coalition government, there is a 1,000-yen cap on weekend and holiday tolls for ETC-equipped cars. From June, however, Maehara says the toll cap will be raised to 2,000 yen for all days of the week for all cars -- including those without ETCs.

The new toll system would make long-distance travel on weekdays feel comparatively cheaper, but at the same time increase the burden for cars traveling shorter distances. Small trucking companies that mostly serve limited areas expressed strong opposition to the plan. And with the House of Councillors election expected to take place in July, DPJ legislators began making noise, which led Ozawa to take action.

Ozawa's actions could be consistent or not, depending on how you look at them. On one hand, the new toll system came into being because of Ozawa's push for highway construction even if it meant shaving money off of funds allotted for toll discounts. To criticize the new plan obviously contradicts this.

One the other hand, however, Ozawa has consistently placed priority on elections more than anything else. Through last year's regime change, Ozawa had won over the Japan Trucking Association. But it would all be for naught if it does not translate into more votes for the DPJ in the Upper House election. This is all that concerns Ozawa.

The day after Ozawa visited the Prime Minister's Office, Maehara also met with Hatoyama, where he received the prime minister's approval for his intention "at this point" not to review the new toll plan. The fact that Maehara used the words "at this point" has some observers predicting that he will eventually give in to Ozawa and call off the June toll change.

In the never-ending drama being played out by the bungling Hatoyama government, the latest confusion over highways has served as new fodder for the media.

Is the election-mindedness of the exceptionally "iron-armed" secretary-general a glimmer of hope for the revitalization of Japan, or a delusion of someone in power?

There is a possibility that on Tuesday, a Prosecution Inquest Committee will rule on prosecutors' earlier decision not to indict Ozawa on charges of violating the Political Funds Control Law. The drama continues. (By Takao Yamada, Expert Senior Writer)

(Mainichi Japan) April 26, 2010
毎日新聞 2010年4月26日 東京朝刊


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« 医療の人手不足 外国人の就労制限撤廃は当然 | トップページ | 沖縄県民大会―基地を全国の問題として »