TOPICS : Japan’s pension scandal deals blow to two-party system

Bennett Richardson

Just when Japan’s politicians appeared to be finally gaining some credibility with the public, the nation’s rickety pension system sneaked up and pulled the rug from under their feet.

The latest political scandal in the corridors of power in Tokyo has already forced two high-profile lawmakers to quit their posts — and also all but sinks the opposition’s chances in summer elections in what is likely to mark a setback for Japan’s progress toward a genuine two-party political system.

Naoto Kan, leader of the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan, tendered his resignation Monday evening in the face of an uproar over his failure to pay compulsory national pension premiums. Last Friday, the chief government spokesman Yasuo Fukuda, one of the longest serving ministers in the cabinet, quit for the same reason. At least six ministers have skipped pension payments, a slip-up that voters find particularly hard to swallow, given concerns over whether the system will be able to support Japan’s rapidly aging population. To be sure, many of the non-payment indiscretions were minor and over a decade old. Some lawmakers forgot to start making payments when the system became obligatory in 1986, while others such as Kan forgot to switch to the pension program when they assumed positions in government, or lost their status as salaried company employees. In addition, non-payment among the general public is by no means a rarity, given fears among young people the system will be long gone by the time they retire. By 2050, it is estimated that over 35 per cent of Japan’s population will be over 65.

The scandal comes just as lawmakers’ reputations in Japan were on the rise. In particular, the public has high regard for Koizumi, given his modest success in getting the economy out of a decade-long slump. His approval ratings are generally around 50 per cent. The government has also just negotiated the safe release of five Japanese hostages in a high-stakes kidnapping drama in Iraq, in what many considered to be a severe test of Koizumi’s leadership.

It is the Iraq issue, and the pensions scandal that will dominate the debate leading up to the July upper house election, says Professor Yoshino. But the pensions scandal has probably helped Koizumi more than it has hurt him. While he has lost an able politician in Fukuda and his image has taken a mild beating, the resignation of Kan has crippled the opposition.

There appears to be no one willing to take over leadership of the Democrats in their hour of need, only a few months before what could be a dismal election result. The task may fall to Ichiro Ozawa, the cantankerous veteran lawmaker who led the smaller Liberal Party until

its recent amalgamation with the Democrats. In a lower house election last November, the Democrats scored big gains against the government — the election was hailed as the coming of age of a true two-party system for Japan, and many hoped it signaled the beginning of the end of a 50-year domination of Japanese politics by the LDP. But now that the Democrats are in disarray, there is little hope of a repeat of that success in July. — The Christian Science Monitor