Japan: Is the DPJ taking a leaf out of the LDP’s book?

Author: Aurelia George Mulgan, UNSW@ADFA

One of the signature policies of the DPJ government has been to reallocate budget funding from public works to people’s livelihoods under its key slogans: ‘from concrete to people’ and ‘putting people’s lives first’. There was much fanfare attached to the suspension of a number of key public works projects as part of the budget review process last year, with the Yamba Dam being the biggest prize. Although halting construction of the dam was a DPJ election pledge in its 2009 manifesto, Minister Maehara, of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLIT), was able to claim much of the political credit for the way the suspension was handled.

But the DPJ’s commitment to spending reform has not prevented it from politicising the current process of public works (PW) allocation in the best tradition of the LDP. As a Mainichi editorial observes, how the DPJ is parceling out PW allocations nationally is a far cry from true reform of ‘the politics of guiding benefits’ (rieki yūdō seiji) – another way of saying ‘pork barreling’.

The public works pie may have shrunk, as shown by the table below, but the DPJ has certainly not turned off the funding tap.

The DPJ’s political tactics have been revealed from the way in which it finalised its PW allocation plan, or kashotsuke, showing how the PW budget is to be distributed around the country for particular construction projects.

The plan was drawn up by the government on the basis of a draft PW budget prepared by MLIT last November. The base PW budget was then modified to reflect lobbying requests from across the country gathered through the office of the DPJ’s Secretary General, Ozawa Ichiro. The Nikkei goes even further, reporting that the allocation plan was ‘tailored to requests’ from Ozawa and his staff.

The increases in allocations engineered by the party smacks of the kind of ‘political addition’ (seiji kasan) that was an enduring feature of policy-making in areas such as PW spending and agricultural pricing under the LDP. Tribe Diet members (zoku) would obtain advance notice of amounts of funding for particular projects, then lobby hard for more. If successful, they would take the political credit, with the pay-off coming in terms of funds and votes from local beneficiaries and support from local government politicians.

The DPJ has changed the key political intermediaries – no longer zoku but the party organisation itself. As the Mainichi editorial points out, ‘Although public works allocations were an effective tool for pork barrelling in regional localities through the mediation of zoku during the LDP period, the technique this time was to mediate local petitions via the whole ruling party’. Amongst 593 roads that will be built with funding from the 2010 budget, slightly more than half (321) are roads that DPJ prefectural federations and governors requested. Of these, 190 have had their works expenses increased even more than at the time of the draft 2010 budget, which is strongly suggestive of a ‘political addition’.

In January, the DPJ used its prefectural chapters to publicise the amounts of budget allotments for particular public works in particular regions to local governments, information that it secured from MLIT. Minister Maehara later apologised for the fact that the information was distributed in this way – in what amounted to an unprecedented budget leak by his own party for political purposes.

When the media put the PW allocation plan under close scrutiny, they concluded that the DPJ had geared spending to the next Upper House election. More budget funds were allocated to prefectures on which the DPJ has placed importance in the election. According to a senior DPJ official, generosity was shown to prefectures where the party is weak, while those where the DPJ is strong had to ‘settle for less’. Key election battlegrounds received the biggest ‘political additions’, one in particular – Tottori – where LDP defector Kotaro Tamura is standing for the DPJ, and which is a traditional bastion of support for the LDP. Other prefectures that benefited were those where the DPJ aims to win both prefectural constituency seats.

Clearly the DPJ has not been able to resist the temptation to use public works for political purposes and also to support its policy of rural revitalisation, which has traditionally been a euphemism for channelling construction projects to regional areas. In observing an ‘elections first’ principle, the DPJ is continuing the political conventions of the ‘construction state’ and keeping the pork barrel well and truly at the ready. Moreover, local politicians at both prefectural and municipal levels seem far from weaned from the central government’s public works teat.