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Friday, July 6, 2007

SCANDALS, PUBLIC SUPPORT PLUNGE PRECEED POLL

Voter litmus test last thing Abe needs now


Staff writer

Scandals, from corruption to suicide, have been the hallmarks of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's first ordinary Diet session, which ended Thursday with support for his Cabinet at its lowest ebb.

Newspaper extras reporting the suicide of farm minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka are circulated outside JR Yurakucho Station
Newspaper extras reporting the suicide of farm minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka are circulated outside JR Yurakucho Station in Tokyo on May 28. AP PHOTO

With the July 29 Upper House election approaching fast, critics say the scandals have dealt a "huge blow" to the Liberal Democratic Party-led ruling bloc, which could possibly lose its majority in the chamber.

"This Diet session was the preliminary battle for the upcoming Upper House election, in which (the opposition parties) are risking (everything) for a change in power," Norihiko Narita, president of Surugadai University in Saitama Prefecture, said, noting the aggressive showdowns in the Diet have been rare of late.

When Abe's Cabinet was inaugurated last September, the support rate was 65 percent, according to a Kyodo News survey. On Monday, the news agency announced the support rate had plummeted to 32 percent.

Scandals and controversial remarks involving Cabinet ministers that provoked outrage from the opposition camp as well as the general public were major reasons for this drastic drop.

First there was administrative reform minister Genichiro Sata, who stepped down in December amid a political funds scandal.

Then on Jan. 27, health minister Hakuo Yanagisawa caused a storm when he referred to women as "child-bearing machines" in a speech on the declining birthrate and the troubled social welfare and pension system.

Farm minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka became the next target of criticism for reporting enormous office expenses despite using a government office with free rent and utilities. In 2005, he reported 33 million yen in office expenses for his political funds management body and also declared that the group spent 5.07 million yen on water, lighting and heating.

Despite repeated calls to explain these suspicious expenses, Matsuoka refused to disclose any details.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and members of his Cabinet bow after a no-confidence motion was voted down at the Lower House plenary session
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and members of his Cabinet bow after a no-confidence motion was voted down at the Lower House plenary session on June 29. KYODO PHOTO

Making matters worse, it was revealed that Matsuoka's fund management and other political organizations had received 13 million yen in political donations from 14 contractors in his home prefecture of Kumamoto. They had won public works orders from the Japan Green Resources Agency, a forestry management entity affiliated with his ministry at the center of a bid-rigging scandal. On May 28, Matsuoka hanged himself.

Last Saturday, then Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma said the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 "couldn't be helped" in order to prevent the Soviet Union from occupying parts of Japan. This comment not only triggered outrage from the opposition parties and the public, but also from lawmakers in the LDP-New Komeito ruling coalition.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had always stood by his embattled ministers, including Kyuma when he said earlier this year that U.S. President George W. Bush was wrong in invading Iraq. But this time, Abe let him hand in his resignation Tuesday.

"That is what happens when you choose Cabinet ministers as a reward for their support" in the LDP presidential campaign, Narita said. Most of Abe's Cabinet members are his close friends and allies.

"This buddy-buddy government lacks (the will to work for) a great cause and lacks focus," and thus is open to such gaffes, he said.

Abe's Cabinet has had to replace three ministers — Matsuoka, Kyuma and Sata, who, unlike Matsuoka, admitted illegal "accounting irregularities" in his annual political funds report before he bowed out.

The lost pension records fiasco also dealt a blow to Abe and his Cabinet. Debate over the pension system heated up in the Diet in May after the Social Insurance Agency admitted there were 50 million unidentified pension records, meaning many people were receiving less money than they are entitled to.

"The sloppy management by the SIA had Abe running around to deal with the situation," Narita said. "And as a result, the Diet shifted in a different direction from what Abe had originally planned."

The conservative Abe, repeatedly bent on breaking "free from the postwar regime" by revising the Constitution, which was drafted in 1947 during the Allied Occupation, has had to set this goal aside.

He fulfilled his first major step in May by steamrollering a law through the Diet to establish procedures for a national referendum to revise the Constitution. Article 96 of the Constitution stipulates that any changes to the charter must be approved by a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Diet, followed by a simple majority in a national referendum. But no legal framework to hold a referendum had been established in the 60 years since the national charter took effect.

"Abe is just trying to finish off what his grandfather (the late Prime Minister) Nobusuke Kishi left undone," Eiken Itagaki, a political analyst and former reporter at the Mainichi Shimbun, said on Abe's quest to revise the Constitution's Article 9.

But critics point out that Abe's conservative agenda was blunted by the eruption of the pension fiasco. Instead, he has focused on showing he can get results by ramming various bills through the Diet during the last couple of months of the session.

Abe revised the juvenile law to lower the minimum age at which a child can be sent to a reformatory to "about 12" and revised the Criminal Procedure Law so that people victimized by crime can question defendants and witnesses in court and recommend sentences.

Abe also won Diet passage of three education-related law revisions in June. Academic guidelines for elementary and high schools will be changed and, based on the them, textbooks will be revised. Critics fear the new tack will force students to display a patriotic attitude that eventually revives the type of militant nationalism Japan saw in the prewar era.

The revised law also requires teachers to renew their licenses every 10 years to brush up on their skills.

With time running out to deliberate the remaining controversial bills, Abe's government extended the Diet session by 12 days, pushing the Upper House election back a week, and turning a deaf ear to the outcry from the opposition parties and Upper House lawmakers eager to focus on their election campaigns.

In the end, Abe rammed through bills (all denounced as impromptu, lacking any significant deliberation and rife with loopholes) to reform the mismanaged pension system, to water down "amakudari" — the practice, considered highly corrupt, of placing retired government officials in high positions at private-sector and government affiliated organizations they oversaw — and to revise the Political Funds Law ostensibly to boost the transparency of lawmakers' funds but in reality providing a channel for such funds to be diverted to areas free of scrutiny.

Critics agree that the battle between the ruling and opposition camps during this ordinary Diet session was unusually aggressive.

"In the world of politics, the Diet is the place to coordinate opinions (with other parties) to find common ground," Itagaki said. "But Abe and his Cabinet ruined (the chance to work with the opposition)."

And in just three weeks, the ruling and opposition parties are set to collide head-on in the Upper House poll.

With only 109 seats out of a total of 242, the LDP on its own lacks a majority in the chamber. It has maintained an effective majority with New Komeito's 23 seats. The Democratic Party of Japan currently has 83 seats.

Even if the LDP loses badly in the election, it will not automatically lead to a change in government — although it would be a first opportunity for the DPJ to attempt to seize power.

"The Upper House election will become the battlefield" for the ruling and opposition parties, said Narita of Surugadai University. "And the future of Abe's Cabinet will all depend on the results of the Upper House election."



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