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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

ANALYSIS

By-election loss adds to Fukuda's troubles

Pressure will mount to hold an unwanted snap vote


Staff writer

The Liberal Democratic Party's defeat in the Lower House by-election in the Yamaguchi No. 2 district on Sunday is yet another blow to the already reeling Cabinet of Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda.

News photo
Much to ponder: Senior Liberal Democratic Party leaders (from left) Makoto Koga, head of the party's election committee; Secretary General Bunmei Ibuki; Toshihiro Nikai, chairman of the General Council; Sadakazu Tanigaki, chief of the Policy Research Council; and Hidehisa Otsuji, chairman of the party's Upper House caucus; attend a Monday session of the General Council. KYODO PHOTO

Faced with this emphatic sign of weakening popular support, the ruling coalition will now try to put off the general election as long as possible, political analysts say.

On the other hand, the Democratic Party of Japan, the main opposition force, is expected to turn up the heat on Fukuda in a bid to pressure him into dissolving the Lower House for a snap election.

The by-election was the first national-level race since Fukuda took office in September.

The LDP-New Komeito ruling bloc, which has been struggling in the divided Diet since losing its Upper House majority in July, had been clinging to the hope that a victory in Sunday's election might turn the political tide.

But the outcome was once again a heavy loss for the ruling bloc.

The DPJ's Hideo Hiraoka, 54, won 116,348 votes — 22,000 more than the 94,404 cast for Shigetaro Yamamoto, 59, of the LDP.

Analysts said the margin of victory was huge given that the district has traditionally been a conservative stronghold that has produced two prime ministers, Eisaku Sato and Nobusuke Kishi.

Kazuhisa Kawakami, a political science professor at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo, said the by-election amounted to a thumbs down for Fukuda's leadership.

"Fukuda let the political situation grow worse without taking any action in the divided Diet," said Kawakami, who specializes in political psychology.

In the face of resistance in the opposition-controlled Upper House, Fukuda failed to extend the provisional extra rates on gasoline and other auto-related taxes — revenues used exclusively to finance road construction. The extra rates expired March 31, cutting gasoline prices by about ¥25 per liter this month.

Despite the by-election defeat, the ruling coalition reaffirmed on Monday that it would reinstate the gasoline and other road-related surcharges through an overriding vote Wednesday in the ruling bloc-dominated Lower House.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura denied the election outcome will affect the coalition's plans to reinstate the extra tax rates.

"We will continue to explain (to the public) about the need to raise (the tax rates) again," Machimura told a news conference Monday. "And we believe that we will gain the public's understanding."

Article 59 of the Constitution allows the Lower House to hold a second vote to approve a bill with a two-thirds majority if the Upper House does not vote on it within 60 days. The Lower House approved the tax bill Feb. 29 and, therefore, the lower chamber — in which the ruling bloc currently holds more than two-thirds of the seats — can hold a revote on the bill on or after Wednesday.

The DPJ has threatened to submit a censure motion against Fukuda in the Upper House if the ruling bloc decides to raise gasoline prices again.

Such a motion would not be legally binding, but the DPJ hopes to further damage Fukuda's Cabinet and force the prime minister to dissolve the lower chamber for a snap general election.

But Norihiko Narita, a political science professor at Surugadai University in Saitama Prefecture, advised against the DPJ taking such an action.

"Even if (the DPJ) submits a censure motion (and if it is endorsed in the opposition-controlled Upper House), all (the ruling bloc) has to do is ignore it," Narita said. "The DPJ, on the other hand, would have to boycott Diet deliberations (if such a motion is endorsed in the upper chamber), and could face public criticism for that."

Analysts also suggest that with the by-election loss, the next Lower House election will likely not be held for a while — and possibly not until the current Lower House members' four-year terms expire in September 2009. The right to dissolve the Lower House rests exclusively with the prime minister.

Various media surveys show that the Fukuda Cabinet is in critical condition with public approval ratings below 30 percent, and analysts say it is unlikely the LDP can win the next general election as things now stand.

"If there was a general election now, the DPJ would be stronger" than the LDP, Narita said.

Sunday's election also reflected public criticism of the ruling bloc over the new health insurance system for people aged 75 or older. The system, under which insurance premiums are deducted from pension payouts, has proved unpopular among elderly voters, who are generally considered a base of support for Fukuda.

The government and the ruling bloc "did not properly explain (the new health insurance system) to the elderly and (the ruling bloc) paid for that" with the by-election defeat, said Meiji Gakuin's Kawakami. Given that the new system was decided on two years ago under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, the ruling bloc had plenty of time to make its case, he noted.

Machimura, also a veteran LDP lawmaker and head of the party's largest faction, repeatedly stressed before and after the election that the Yamaguchi by-election alone will not affect important national-level policies.

But Kawakami pointed out that ruling bloc lawmakers will begin clamoring for policy changes regarding the road-related taxes and health insurance in order to appeal to the public, despite the ruling bloc's efforts to reinstate the extra tax rates Wednesday.

"I think it is possible that (the ruling bloc) will make changes to its policies following the defeat," Kawakami said. Members of the ruling bloc know "that they won't be able to win the next general election under the current circumstances."

Surugadai University's Narita, who served as secretary to Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa when the LDP was forced out of power in 1993, also noted that Sunday's by-election was a rare instance of a key election being swayed by policy issues.

The LDP's defeat, Narita said, reminded him of the party's crushing loss in the 1989 Upper House election, which followed the introduction of the unpopular consumption tax.

"A by-election is an indicator of (voter sentiment for) the next general election," Narita said. "I feel that there are signs of a major political change and (the LDP's defeat) left a strong impression."

Insurance to blame

Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda admitted Monday evening that the confusion over the new insurance system for the elderly was a major factor in the ruling bloc's huge defeat in Sunday's Yamaguchi No. 2 district by-election, but said he has no intention of changing the system.

"It was a crushing defeat," said Fukuda, who also heads the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. "There were many reasons, but the insurance system for the elderly was a major cause."

The new system for people aged 75 and older was introduced April 15, immediately drawing harsh criticism from the elderly, whose premiums are being deducted from pension benefits.

But despite acknowledging the problems regarding the new system, Fukuda said now is the time to examine how the system is actually working instead of thinking of scrapping it.

Fukuda also told reporters he would be willing to have his Cabinet officially endorse a plan in mid-May to free up revenue from road-related taxes, which has been solely used to fund road construction, starting in April 2009.

Fukuda met in the afternoon with Akihiro Ota, leader of New Komeito, the LDP's coalition partner, and came to an agreement to reinstate the provisionally added extra rates on gasoline and other auto-related taxes Wednesday.

This means that gasoline prices, which dropped by ¥25 per liter in April, will once again rise starting May 1.

"Day by day, the longer we wait, (the lack of tax revenue) is digging a hole in the income of the national and local governments," Fukuda said.

"Of course nobody is happy that (gasoline) prices will go up. . . . But we must make efforts to gain the public's understanding."

The LDP's candidate, Shigetaro Yamamoto, lost the by-election by a solid margin of 22,000 votes to Hideo Hiraoka of the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition force.



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