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Date : 08-04-10 10:39
Japan Road Warriors
 Writer : J&K
From The Economist print edition

An end to the construction state, or to Mr Fukuda?

WITH a slowing economy and rising energy costs, a fall in petrol taxes on April 1st of up to ¥24 (24 cents) is something to celebrate. Not, however, if it causes a political smash-up. That is why Yasuo Fukuda, the prime minister, apologised to Japan for “the failure in politics” that had led to the cut. He had proposed ways to extend a “temporary” petrol levy that had been in place for over 30 years. But the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which controls the upper house of parliament, rejected them. So a showdown looms at the end of April, when Mr Fukuda can use his coalition's two-thirds “supermajority” in the lower house to override the upper. If he does, then the upper house may pass a rare motion of censure.

The crisis has prompted the boldest move Mr Fukuda has made in a career drenched in caution. Japanese governments have long used the petrol levy and other tax revenues to splash out on road-building, in a form of patronage politics that has helped the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to hold on to power while smothering a once gorgeous country in concrete. Instead of scrapping the levy, Mr Fukuda proposed that from next year its proceeds would be applied to the general budget. This has shocked his own party's pro-construction “road tribe”, with which he may now face as fierce a battle as he does with the opposition.

It is far from certain that the opposition will profit from the chaos. The DPJ's leader, Ichiro Ozawa, is praised for having highlighted the scandal of taxes earmarked for road-building, which symbolise everything that is wrong with Japan's “construction state”. Not even Junichiro Koizumi, the reformist LDP prime minister of 2001-06, managed that. But the DPJ's refusal to consider Mr Fukuda's proposals smacks of opportunism. So does Mr Ozawa's recent insistence that the main reason for scrapping the petrol levy was to boost the economy. If Mr Fukuda judges the public readier to punish the opposition rather than him for the “failure in politics”, he may choose to ignore any censure.

Mr Fukuda's bigger challenge may be the one from his own party. For the moment, even the road tribe has fallen sullenly into line. The prime minister holds a powerful if unspoken sanction over its members: the ability to call a snap general election in which many would lose their seats. But the tribe will not give up without a fight. Meanwhile, the restless modernisers who convinced Mr Fukuda to be bold will want to keep him to his promises. Their unspoken sanction is to vote against his government at the end of April, or leave the ruling party altogether, either way threatening the supermajority on which he depends.