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Friday, May 23, 2008

If push comes to shove, DPJ won't

Party seeks to prove it's qualified to rule, but avoids censuring Fukuda to force election

Staff writer

Yasuo Fukuda and his Cabinet are sinking, and political analysts say the prime minister's condition is critical. So this would seem like the perfect time for the Democratic Party of Japan to pounce.

News photo
Reading the tea leaves: Democratic Party of Japan leader Ichiro Ozawa (left) and deputy Naoto Kan get ready to vote on the road tax bill at the House of Representatives on May 13. KYODO PHOTO

Lawmakers in the DPJ, the largest opposition force, have repeatedly stressed their intention to corner Fukuda into dissolving the Lower House and calling a snap election.

But instead of seizing the chance to submit a censure motion against the prime minister in the Upper House, which is controlled by the opposition, the DPJ has opted to take the more conventional approach of fighting the Liberal Democratic Party openly in the Diet.

A big reason for this is that the DPJ is not sure how much the public would support a censure motion, according to a senior lawmaker from New Komeito, the LDP's ruling coalition partner.

Lawmakers from both sides generally feel that once the opposition parties submit a censure motion against the prime minister and it's approved, all proceedings in the Upper House will come to a halt.

While there is no explicit rule to this effect, lawmakers say the opposition parties would contradict their own censure motion if they were to continue holding committee sessions and deliberate on government-submitted bills in the presence of the prime minister.

If the opposition camp had submitted the censure motion immediately after the ruling bloc overrode the Upper House on May 13, passing the road tax bill on the strength of its two-thirds majority in the Lower House, the DPJ would have refused to hold deliberations in the upper chamber for more than a month until the June 15 end of the current Diet session.

And stopping the Diet for a month would have been seen negatively by the public, said the New Komeito lawmaker, who asked not to be named.

"The DPJ couldn't read how voters would react" if the Diet proceedings stopped in the Upper House, he said. On the other hand, "I think the prime minister was worried, too, that he might be forced to dissolve the Lower House if the DPJ had submitted a censure motion."

Shuji Kira, a second-term DPJ lawmaker, agrees that worries over the public reaction was one factor behind the party's inaction. But he said another major reason was that Fukuda looked certain to keep the Lower House intact even if the DPJ had submitted a censure motion.

"The LDP has assumed a defiant attitude," Kira said. "The DPJ has read that no matter what kind of measures the DPJ takes against the LDP, it has no intention of dissolving (the Lower House) in a situation when it is at a disadvantage."

Analysts agree it is highly unlikely an election will take place before Japan hosts the Group of Eight summit in July.

"No matter how low the support rate for the LDP is, the party can still rule — even if that is not desirable," said Yasunori Sone, a professor of political science at Keio University in Tokyo.

"The right to dissolve (the Lower House) is solely in the hands of the prime minister, and it will not be easy (for the DPJ) to force an election," Sone said.

A Kyodo News survey released May 2 found that the support rate for Fukuda's Cabinet had plunged to 19.8 percent, while public anger, and distrust continue to mount over the "provisional" tax surcharge on gasoline and the new health insurance system for people aged 75 and older that deducts premiums from their pension benefits.

According to the survey, the support rate for the DPJ reached 30.3 percent, up from 25.7 percent in the previous poll, while the LDP's support rate was only 24.3 percent, down from 27.6 percent.

Yet Sone said rising support for the DPJ won't change the political landscape, at least for now.

Unlike a vote of no confidence in the Lower House, which would force Fukuda to dissolve the chamber or the Cabinet to resign en masse, a censure motion in the upper chamber carries no such power.

"Because a censure motion is not legally binding, Fukuda is not going to resign nor dissolve" the Lower House, Sone said. "All the DPJ would be able to do is boycott Diet deliberations. And it wouldn't be able to keep that up for a month (without drawing increasing public criticism)."

The DPJ's Kira openly admitted that the public still has doubts over whether his party could run the nation.

"Honestly speaking, I think there are few people who are actively supporting the DPJ at the moment," Kira said. "Looking at the way the LDP has been handling things and at the sloppy management of the government, the public feels it is time to put an end to the LDP's rule, but at the same time, I believe people still are unsure they can rely on the DPJ."

The party has yet to show it can take the reins of power.

"The public wants us to prove we have the ability to run the government," Kira said. "By choosing not to submit a censure motion and stop Diet deliberations, we are killing two birds with one stone — we can continue to highlight the incompetence of the government while revealing what we would do if we were in power."

With less than a month before the Diet closes its doors for the season, DPJ lawmakers said they are ready to focus on policies that directly affect the people, including the pension issue and the unpopular health insurance system for the elderly.

"The DPJ is more powerful than it has been before," DPJ Vice President Yoshiaki Takaki said. "Many young (DPJ) lawmakers are burning (with intensity) to steer the nation's politics."

Takaki stressed that Fukuda and his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, managed to retain the ruling bloc's comfortable majority in the Lower House thanks to the popularity of Abe's predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi. And the LDP is afraid to lose its two-thirds majority in the Lower House in a general election.

"The sooner the election, the better," Takaki, a former DPJ Diet affairs chief, said. "To truly reflect the will of the public, we must let the public choose its leader."

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