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Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2006

KEY BILLS CLEARED BUT WHAT'S TO COME?

Abe's honeymoon Diet session ends with whimper


Staff writer

The first extraordinary Diet session on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's watch ended Tuesday without fanfare, having finished business last week by passing his legislation to revise the education law and to turn the Defense Agency into a ministry.

News photo
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe grasps Liberal Democratic Party Secretary General Hidenao Nakagawa's hand Tuesday afternoon in the Diet to mark the close of the first extraordinary legislative session under his Cabinet. KYODO PHOTO

The opposition camp, led by the Democratic Party of Japan, actually didn't make its move against the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its junior partner, New Komeito, until Friday, the scheduled close of the session, by submitting a no-confidence motion against Abe's Cabinet.

That abortive attempt only managed to delay Diet proceedings by half a day and drive a grumbling ruling coalition into extending the session for four days as a safety measure to ensure all of the bills it was pushing would be passed.

"It was just for show," political commentator Hisayuki Miyake said. "There was no point in the opposition parties' submission of the no-confidence motion because it was known from the beginning that it was a no-win situation."

And as it turned out, the extension was unnecessary because the final seven bills had all been passed by Friday evening. They included the contentious legislation to revise the Fundamental Law of Education to instill patriotism in the classroom, the Defense Ministry bill and a bill to extend a special law to allow continued Maritime Self-Defense Force support in the Indian Ocean for the forces involved in U.S.-led military operations in Afghanistan.

Since taking office in September, Abe repeatedly pushed for passage of the education bill during the session. The Fundamental Law of Education has not been amended since its enactment in 1947 during the Allied Occupation.

During the session, the education system was cast in a harsh light as several students committed suicide, blaming bullying at school as the cause, and it was revealed that many schools were not teaching students the required number of classes to graduate.

The government also came under fire over revelations that it had planted people at town hall meetings it sponsored nationwide to speak in support of official policies, and had overpaid for such events.

"There were many opportunities (for the opposition parties) to (raise a ruckus), but in the end, they were overpowered" by the LDP, Miyake said, noting the DPJ setback at the hands of the LDP in October Lower House by-elections may have stole its thunder.

Other contentious bills, however, including one to make conspiracy a crime and another to lay down procedures for holding a referendum to amend the Constitution, are still on the plate and await further debate in the legislative session that starts in mid-January.

The conspiracy bill was first submitted to the Diet in 2003 in line with Japan's signing of the U.N. Convention against Transnational Organized Crime in December 2000. It requires signatory nations to establish conspiracy charges.

But the bill has gotten nowhere due to resistance from opposition parties and citizens' groups that claim punishing the mere discussion of crimes constitutes suppression of freedom of thought and expression.

On revising the Constitution, amendments must be approved by a referendum, but the legal framework for such a vote has yet to be established.

"The referendum bill is not about whether the Constitution should be revised or not," said Mitsuru Uchida, a professor emeritus of political science at Waseda University in Tokyo. "The Constitution states that it can be revised, but due to the negligence of the Diet, no procedures have been made yet."

Despite the relatively uneventful extraordinary session, Abe's Cabinet saw a steady decline in its support rate. According to a recent Kyodo News survey, the approval rate dropped to 48.6 percent in early December, from 65.0 percent marked just after his Cabinet was inaugurated in September.

The fall followed the LDP's readmission of 11 postal reform "rebels" who were kicked out of the LDP last fall for opposing Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's key bill to privatize the postal service.

The Abe-approved readmission, however, created tension within the party. Some Upper House LDP lawmakers were eager for the return of the 11 because they brought back with them strong support bases, which are seen as necessary in the runup to next summer's Upper House election. But many LDP freshmen had run against the postal reform rebels in last year's general election.

"Although Abe denies this, it is obvious to everyone that he readmitted the postal reform rebels in order (for LDP candidates to prevail in) next year's Upper House election," Uchida said. "And of course, a large amount of money -- hundreds of millions of yen -- will be given to the LDP as party subsidies," he said.

Political parties receive government subsidies based on their number of Diet members as of every Jan. 1.

Uchida said Koizumi's tactic of ousting his opponents clearly differs from Abe, who tries to avoid conflict.

Their approaches toward South Korea and China also differ, as Koizumi angered the two neighbors by visiting Yasukuni Shrine.

Abe, a known hawk who had voiced support for Koizumi's shrine visits and has also often gone to Yasukuni, announced soon after he took office that he will not declare whether he will go now that he is the prime minister.

Takeshi Sasaki, a professor of political science at Gakushuin University in Tokyo, pointed out that Abe's first visit abroad as prime minister was to South Korea and China, an example of Abe's "safe driving."

"I think Abe managed to overcome his first Diet session by steering the wheel cautiously . . . with hope that he can maintain his Cabinet for a long time," Sasaki said. "But (this extraordinary Diet session) was just the honeymoon -- who knows what awaits next year."



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