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Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2008

'07 political storm really the calm before '08?

Pundits wonder if Fukuda can keep election on back burner under DPJ pressure

Staff writer

Last year was full of political turmoil — from scandals and arrests to suicide and a divided Diet — but there is no time to rest because 2008 may turn out to be a historical turning point if there is a general election, depending on which side wins, analysts say.

News photo
A Democratic Party of Japan poster shows leader Ichiro Ozawa while Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda is shown in a Liberal Democratic Party poster. KYODO PHOTO

Lower House lawmakers' terms ends in September 2009, but Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda can dissolve the chamber and call a general election sooner if he sees fit.

No one knows if or when Fukuda might do this. But critics say he may be cornered into calling an election as a way to resolve the stalemate caused by the divided Diet.

Although the opposition parties, led by the Democratic Party of Japan, have been demanding an election, members of the Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito ruling bloc worry that they could possibly not only lose seats but also their majority in the Lower House if a poll is held.

"Even if the ruling bloc were to win by a few seats, that is enough to justify its rule," said Hideo Otake, a political science professor at Doshisha Women's College of Liberal Arts in Kyoto. "(The ruling bloc) would be able to take forceful measures . . . to pass bills and all the while say that is what the public wants.

"But of course, if the DPJ wins the general election, the Diet would no longer be divided and everything would be solved," Otake said.

Getting bills passed was a snap when the LDP controlled the Diet, but no longer.

Although the LDP, which Fukuda heads, and New Komeito share a comfortable majority in the lower chamber, the opposition parties control the Upper House as a result of the DPJ's landslide victory in the election last July. Bills submitted by the government and ruling bloc that cleared the Lower House have been piling up in the Upper House without being put to a vote.

"One thing I would like to say (when looking back on recent months) is that everything took a long time to go forward," Fukuda said Dec. 26. "I also learned very well that it is pretty difficult to pass laws" in a divided Diet.

There is one way for the ruling bloc to pass bills once they have been rejected in the Upper House — to return the bill to the Lower House and ram it through via a two-thirds vote in line with the Constitution.

Although 28 laws were approved by forceful two-thirds votes in the 1940s and 1950s, this tactic has not been used for more than 50 years.

The ruling bloc, however, is set to take that step early this month with the special antiterrorism bill currently before the Upper House.

Fukuda extended the current extraordinary Diet session twice until Jan. 15 to pass the antiterrorism bill, which would enable the Maritime Self-Defense Force to resume its Indian Ocean mission providing fuel and water to multinational naval ships engaged in counterterrorism operations.

But Norihiko Narita, president of Surugadai University in Saitama Prefecture, said that while passing the antiterrorism bill is one thing, using the two-thirds vote repeatedly is another.

"The ruling bloc would face a very difficult situation — whether it would be politically possible to kill (the voices of the Upper House) and just keep on using the two-thirds vote to pass bills," Narita said.

Critics said the first test will be the ordinary Diet session that begins in mid-January. The first task facing the ruling bloc is passing the budget and related bills.

Under Article 60 of the Constitution, the budget itself can be enacted with just the approval of the House of Representatives, but that does not work for all the related bills.

"One possible scenario would be (for Fukuda) to give in to the demands of the opposition parties and agree to dissolve the Lower House and call an election in exchange for opposition cooperation to pass the budget-related bills," Narita said.

"Either that . . . or Fukuda has no choice but to take an extremely hardline attitude (with two-thirds votes in the Lower House), which I don't think he can."

That means an election could come in March, April or May, when the ruling bloc is scurrying to get the budget-related bills passed.

But various lawmakers in the ruling bloc, including New Komeito leader Akihiro Ota, are desperately trying to forestall a poll as long as possible due to the sagging support rate for Fukuda's Cabinet.

At the end of September when Fukuda took office after the abrupt resignation of the conservative Shinzo Abe, his Cabinet had a high support rate of 57.8 percent, according to a Kyodo News survey. Because Abe's resignation came as a surprise, less than one month after he reshuffled his Cabinet, Fukuda kept most of Abe's picks in place.

But with the festering Defense Ministry corruption scandal and the pension record-keeping debacle, a Kyodo survey in mid-December saw the approval rate fall to 35.3 percent.

"Although I was critical of the direction in which Abe was headed, it was clear what he wanted to do," Narita said.

"With Fukuda, I can't tell what he wants to do. He is just wearing the robe that Abe threw out without even creating his own Cabinet.

"One thing Fukuda did do was make a bid to DPJ President Ichiro Ozawa for a grand coalition. Instead of months of confrontations, Fukuda tried to find another way — bring together the two largest parties.

"Democracy is based on the role of the ruling parties governing the state while the opposition parties act as the watchdog," Narita said. "A grand coalition would make the opposition parties' monitoring power weak."

But to the DPJ members' surprise, Ozawa was ready to take that bait. Ozawa later said he thought it would be a way for the DPJ to ultimately take control of the government and achieve its goals.

The idea of a grand coalition "was complete nonsense," said Jiro Yamaguchi, a professor of political science at Hokkaido University. "The public supported the DPJ, hoping for a change in government. A grand coalition would go completely against their will."

Ozawa has been elected 13 times to the Lower House. In 1989, at age 47, he became secretary general of the LDP. He bolted from the party with other members in 1993. Now 15 years on, he could finally be in position to have the DPJ rule for the first time.

In 2009, "I want to finish off (the final battle) to determine the fate of myself as well as the nation," Ozawa said Dec. 25. "I would like to rebuild Japanese politics and realize politics that protect the lives of the public."

It is way too soon to tell who will win the next general election. But Yamaguchi thinks the DPJ has a good chance of victory. A recent Kyodo poll found that 44.7 percent of the respondents prefer a government led by the DPJ, compared with only 28.5 percent siding with the LDP.

"A true change in policies won't happen without a change in government," Yamaguchi said. "It will be a groundbreaking year if there is a change in power after a coalition between the two main parties . . . it is an important step (Japan) must take as soon as possible."

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