While taking advantage of a situation driven by political initiatives, it is imperative to tackle policy issues from a medium- and long-term perspective. How can this goal set in the Heisei era be achieved in the new era?
The general public is also being tested in this regard, not only the Cabinet and political parties.
In the first years of Heisei, the political world was shaken by a series of scandals, including the so-called Recruit incident in which unlisted shares, whose prices were sure to increase, were distributed as bribes to central figures of the then administration; and cases involving major general contractors bribing politicians to receive preferential treatment.
The prime minister and his Cabinet ministers, among others, were forced to resign in connection with the Recruit incident, thus making the people’s trust in politics plunge to its lowest level.
Evils of ‘money politics’
The politicking of Liberal Democratic Party factions was cited as the cause of the scandals. Under the multiple-seat constituency system for lower house elections, candidates from LDP factions ran and competed in the same electoral districts. The factional competition generated the vigor that sustained the LDP’s long-term grip on the government. But at the same time, this helped spur influence-peddling practices and led to money politics.
Under one of the four political reform-related laws established in 1994, the lower house election system was changed to one centering on single-seat constituencies to replace the multiple-seat constituency system. The reform was aimed at making changes of government possible and realizing a shift to party-focused elections.
The Political Funds Control Law was toughened, too. More than ¥30 billion in subsidies — allocated as costs necessary for democracy — are provided annually to political parties.
The cleanup of the political world has progressed to a certain degree and the chances of seeing “money politics” in media reports have decreased. What is called into question now is how political funds are spent rather than how they are procured.
It is natural for political parties and politicians to enhance transparency with regard to the use of political funds and work toward ensuring proper operation of such funds to avoid arousing suspicion among the general public.
A series of political reforms were carried out under extraordinary conditions in the period of economic turmoil in the 1990s that led to the collapse of the bubble economy and financial crisis.
With no initiatives established by politicians, it took time to reexamine the “convoy system” and the system of profit allocation that were premised on a steadily growing economy.
What was required was a shift to expeditious politics in which policies are implemented in the order of priority and growth industries are promoted through deregulation. However, it was impossible to break with the old-fashioned pork-barreling of budgets.
Fiscal spending swelled in the name of business stimulation. The consumption tax was introduced in 1989, the first year of the Heisei era, to help cover social security costs. It took 30 years to arrive at the prospect of a tax rate rise to 10 percent.
During this time there has been a succession of periods in which the Diet was divided, with the ruling camp having a minority in the House of Councillors. Opposition parties had the government and the ruling camp in a corner in the upper house, adding fuel to political and economic turmoil.
Fair benefit, burden
With the fiscal revenue and expenditure devoid of balance, the total of outstanding debts of the central and local governments combined has reached ¥1,100 trillion. This is none other than a predicament in which future generations will have to foot the bill. Amid a prolonged period of low economic growth, Japan was overtaken by China in terms of gross domestic product.
As the low birthrate and graying population accelerate further in the years ahead, the burden on the current working-age generation will increase. The establishment of a sustainable social security system will not be possible as long as the hitherto practice of generous payments to elderly beneficiaries coupled with light burdens continues.
Curbing benefit payments and increasing financial burdens will be indispensable to reform the social security systems, including health care and nursing care systems. A discussion about raising the consumption tax rate above 10 percent is unavoidable. There is also a need for beefing up the growth strategy.
It is important to implement various reforms on the basis of clear prospects for the future and with political responsibility.
We should not avert our eyes from the adverse effects of holding numerous upper and lower house elections.
During the past 30 years of the Heisei era, a national election has been held at a frequency of once every 18 months. Since coming back to power in 2012, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has twice dissolved the lower house — after which general elections were held — both times leading the ruling camp to overwhelming victories.
Is the fear of a single-seat constituency system in which the outcome of an election differs markedly depending on a change in political situations promoting the tendency among political parties to be fixated on short-term policies?
The LDP, which has long been in power, must tenaciously call for reforms that may be painful to the public.
Despite being a target of political reforms, the establishment of a two-party system in which a change of government is likely to occur has not been realized.
The New Frontier Party was launched in 1994 with the aim of becoming an opposition party that could take power but the party collapsed after three years.
The Democratic Party of Japan, which took power in 2009, came to a standstill as the party adhered to unrealistic campaign pledges. Also hit by its clumsy response in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake, the DPJ lost public support, losing an election after just over three years. The breakup process of the former DPJ forces continues even now.
The current political landscape is coming close to resembling the two-party political system that came into being in 1955, with the LDP and the former Japan Socialist Party, which adopted a policy of strict opposition to the LDP, maintaining a standoff against each other.
In order to realize policy-oriented party politics advocated by political reforms, it is essential for opposition parties to repeat internal discussions and refine realistic policies on domestic and foreign affairs.
The opposition parties should challenge the government to a constructive battle of words by presenting counterproposals. By doing so, they can inject some vigor into politics.