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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Budget victory moves Abe a step closer to real goal


Staff writer

Reeling from scandals and falling public approval ratings, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Cabinet cleared a key hurdle in the Diet Monday by winning passage of the fiscal 2007 budget.

News photo
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks to the House of Councilors Budget Committee on Monday. KYODO PHOTO

With the budget debate over, Abe and the ruling coalition -- the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito -- can now focus their attention on another priority: a bill to establish procedures for a national referendum on revising the Constitution.

"Abe has inherited the DNA of his grandfather, (the late Prime Minister) Nobusuke Kishi, and declared that the revision of the Constitution is a main goal of his Cabinet," political commentator Hisayuki Miyake said. "In order to put the revision of the Constitution on his political calendar, Abe must first get the referendum bill passed to lay down the procedures."

Since taking office in September, Abe has repeatedly stressed that he intends to revise the war-renouncing Constitution drafted under the Allied Occupation.

"Sixty years have passed since the enactment of the Constitution," Abe said in his first speech of the year on Jan. 4. "Now is the time to clarify (the LDP's) intention to create a new Constitution for a new era."

Amending the Constitution requires a two-thirds vote of both the Lower and Upper houses and must be approved in a national referendum. However, details of the legal framework for the move have never been worked out.

"It is due to the Diet's negligence that (a referendum bill) has not been (established) in the 60 years since the Constitution came into effect," Miyake noted.

During last year's regular Diet session, both the ruling coalition and the Democratic Party of Japan each submitted their own drafts for a referendum bill.

So far, the ruling bloc and the DPJ have compromised on one of their main differences by agreeing to let citizens aged 18 or over vote in the referendum. But other disagreements remain.

It's not clear whether a final agreement with the DPJ will be reached, but the LDP-led bloc is reportedly ready to go it alone and push the bill through the Lower House as early as mid-April, virtually ensuring its enactment before the Diet closes in mid-June.

"It will be a half step forward for Abe's Cabinet if (the referendum bill) is passed," Miyake said, although he noted that any immediate amendment to the Constitution is unlikely because the ruling bloc is far short of the two-thirds majority needed in each Diet chamber.

Another key issue is education reform.

Recent problems regarding education have pushed the government into action, most notably the flurry of student suicides last year caused by bullying.

Three bills are expected to be submitted to the Diet soon: one to increase central government supervision over local boards of education, another to introduce a system forcing teachers to renew their licenses, and one to create the new position of vice principal at public schools.

Abe's Cabinet also hopes to win Diet approval to extend the special law that allows the Self-Defense Forces to help with reconstruction in Iraq. The law expires in July.

But observers point out that aside from the referendum bill, LDP and DPJ members will be mainly focused on the July Upper House election.

"After the unified local elections (in April), all (lawmakers) will be moving to (prepare for) the Upper House election, and I don't think people will concentrate on deliberating (bills in the Diet)," said Jiro Yamaguchi, a professor of political science at Hokkaido University.

Among the upcoming local polls, Yamaguchi cited the Tokyo gubernatorial election on April 8 as a possible gauge of the fortunes of the Abe Cabinet. Although 14 hopefuls have declared their candidacy, the main battle will be between the powerful incumbent, Shintaro Ishihara, and Shiro Asano, a former governor of Miyagi Prefecture.

"A loss for Ishihara could directly be linked to the crisis of Abe's Cabinet," Yamaguchi figured. "Abe and Ishihara are completely the same in nature, and if the rightwing populist goes down, it will be a hard blow for the LDP."

Although both Ishihara and Asano have spurned official support from political parties, the LDP is unofficially backing the powerful incumbent while Asano is effectively being backed by the DPJ.

In addition, the upcoming Upper House, following the unified local elections, is crucial for both the LDP and DPJ, Yamaguchi said.

At the moment, the LDP holds only 110 seats in the 242-seat chamber, and has maintained a majority with the help of New Komeito's 24 seats. The DPJ has 82 seats.

Half of the chamber's seats are up for grabs in the triennial election.

For the DPJ, the Upper House election will be an opportunity to win a majority in the chamber, and thus bring it a step closer to a change of power in government, Yamaguchi said.

With its powerful leader, Ichiro Ozawa, at the party's helm, this may be the last chance for the DPJ to upstage the LDP, and a failure could even split the party, the professor said.

The LDP faces an uphill battle, Yamaguchi said, adding that the party is already bracing for a dismal result by lowering its expectations for the poll.

"It is not normal -- it is absurd -- that (key LDP lawmakers) are saying that Abe should not have to step down even if the party loses seats in the Upper House election," he said.

Things look bleak for the LDP in part because of earlier missteps, including a gaffe by health minister Hakuo Yanagisawa, who described women as "child-bearing machines," while the party's senior lawmakers and Cabinet ministers have been hit for declaring large amounts in office and utility expenses while using rent-free government offices. The DPJ, however, has not been exempt from this apparent misdeed.



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