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Saturday, June 17, 2006

Diet closes for summer, puts lid on Koizumi legacy

Yasukuni champion got administrative, medical reforms passed but dropped ball on patriotism


Staff writer

The current Diet session held its last working day Friday, leaving debate on important legislation for the next term.

News photo
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi leaves the Diet after a Cabinet meeting Friday.

With Prime Minister Junichro Koizumi pledging to step down at the end of his term as Liberal Democratic Party president in September, this session was a final opportunity for him to secure his legacy.

Out of 91 government-sponsored bills submitted, 82 became law in the session, which will officially closes Sunday. Legislation passed include an administrative reform bill and medical reform bills, which aim to curb growth in public health spending by making the elderly pay a larger share of their health-care costs.

But a number of divisive bills, including a proposed revision of the Fundamental Law of Education, a bill to set up procedures for a national referendum — a prerequisite for constitutional amendments — and a bill that would make conspiracy a crime were left hanging.

"The bills are so important that the government should have risked everything to get them approved by the Diet," said Fukashi Horie, president of Shobi University. "All of these bills were placed on the table, but unfortunately, not one of them was enacted. . . . What was the meaning of this Diet session?"

Many of the contentious bills, including the patriotism revision in the Fundamental Law of Education, the referendum bill and the bill to upgrade the Defense Agency to a full-fledged ministry, were submitted toward the end of the session, leaving little time for deliberation.

LDP Secretary General Tsutomu Takebe told reporters earlier this week that the debate was still meaningful, even if the legislation wasn't passed.

"Submitting the bills is a step forward because it will stir public interest," Takebe said. "It is important to deliberate on the bills during the next Diet session with the public's understanding and interest."

But opposition members pointed out that the ruling bloc lost interest in passing the bills toward the end of the session, shifting its attention to September's LDP presidential race.

Koizumi could have extended the session, but repeatedly said he intended to wrap up deliberations as scheduled Sunday.

The head of the LDP's Diet affairs committee, Kozo Watanabe, called the mood "rather unusual."

"The air is usually tense toward the end of the Diet session, with the ruling party wanting to extend the Diet session and the opposition parties strongly against it. But this time, the end of the Diet session lost momentum," Watanabe said.

Shobi University's Horie pointed out that if the session had been extended, some of the outstanding bills could have been approved.

"(Koizumi) just wanted to end the Diet session as soon as possible to focus on the September presidential election, giving . . . (the) time necessary for his successor, who will take over his reform agenda," Horie said, indicating he prefers Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe.

"I believe Koizumi is trying to ensure he will have a certain amount of influence over the next prime minister."

Hidekazu Kawai, professor of political science at Chubu University in Nagoya, reckoned the tide turned against the LDP halfway through the Diet — when Ichiro Ozawa became president of the Democratic Party of Japan.

In February, a DPJ lawmaker read out before a Diet committee an e-mail falsely accusing a son of Takebe of shady financial links with Livedoor Co. founder Takafumi Horie.

The e-mail turned out to be a fake, forcing the lawmaker to resign and DPJ President Seiji Maehara to step down to take responsibility for the fiasco.

Although public criticism initially focused on the DPJ blunder, Ozawa used the opportunity to move into the top spot in early April, earning praise for his handling of the affair. Several weeks later, a DPJ candidate won a by-election in Chiba Prefecture.

"All that happened was that Ozawa took Maehara's place, but the power balance (between the DPJ and LDP) changed," Kawai said. "Early on, Abe was leading the race (to succeed Koizumi), but (LDP members) realized Abe was too young to go against Ozawa."

Recently, former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda has emerged as a strong candidate to replace Koizumi, whose party holds a majority in the Lower House, although the hawkish Abe is still ahead in the polls.

Kawai said Koizumi had produced "prime ministerial politics," in which public support for the prime minister strongly influences the outcome of national elections.

This change was apparent, Kawai said, in last year's Lower House election, when the LDP won a sweeping victory at the DPJ's expense on the back of Koizumi's popularity with voters.

But now the LDP may become the victim of more personality-driven politics.

"The public will be indirectly choosing the prime minister in next year's Upper House election, (indirectly) voting for Ozawa or the LDP's next president," Kawai said, adding that if the LDP fails to choose a popular successor, it could see a setback.



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The Japan Times

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