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Saturday, June 21, 2008

After the drama, the curtain drops quietly on the current Diet session

Staff writer

The curtain drops on the ordinary Diet session Saturday, quietly and without the catharsis the Democratic Party of Japan aimed for with its last-minute censure motion against Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda last week.

News photo
Yeas and nays: The vote on the controversial bill to maintain road-related taxes in May proved the high point of the opposition's offensive against Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda during the latest Diet session, which ends Saturday. KYODO PHOTO

The divided Diet was hard on both sides — the DPJ, the largest opposition force, and the Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito ruling coalition — as they wrestled throughout the five-month session over such issues as the budget, gasoline prices, the election of the Bank of Japan governor and medical care for the elderly.

In the end, only 80 bills were enacted during the current Diet session. Last year, when the Diet was not divided, however, 111 bills were approved.

After threatening censure for some time, the DPJ finally submitted the motion against Fukuda in a long-threatened effort to drive him into a corner.

For the first time in postwar history, the opposition-controlled Upper House slapped the nation's leader with a nonbinding censure motion on June 11. Fukuda and his Cabinet shrugged it off. The Lower House wasn't dissolved and election called.

The Fukuda Cabinet "has no will nor power to change the government and administration for the people," DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa told a news conference last week. "Having such a Cabinet is not beneficial to the public."

Ozawa continued, "The DPJ, representing many voices of the public, decided to submit the censure motion to let the public know that the current prime minister should not be in office."

Political analysts said the DPJ had other better opportunities to submit the motion against Fukuda and missed them.

Kazuhisa Kawakami, a political science professor at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo, said the censure motion was poorly timed and "pretty pointless."

It "was just posturing by the DPJ, trying to rally the party for an all-out battle," Kawakami said. "For the ruling party, on the other hand, (the censure motion) was just like a mosquito bite."

Support for Fukuda's Cabinet continued to drop virtually from the moment it was formed last September. But recently, public polls suggest things are looking up for the prime minister. A Kyodo News survey last week showed that Fukuda's support rate was up to 25 percent, well above the 19.8 percent in May.

But Kawakami sees this trend as fueled by external factors, including the July Group of Eight summit Fukuda will host in Hokkaido. Public attention is also more focused on recent tragedies, including the major earthquake in the Tohoku region and the Akihabara vehicle and stabbing rampage that left seven people slain and 10 wounded, Kawakami said.

"All of the negative factors (like the scandals involving public servants and the pension records) have played out," Kawakami said. "And with the summit coming up, it is sure to give (the support rate) a little push because it is (Fukuda's) gala event."

In order for the Fukuda Cabinet to really take off, however, the prime minister must show more "Fukuda-ism," Kawakami stressed.

"Fukuda needs to show that he is readily willing to swallow bitter medicine (like raising the consumption tax)," Kawakami said. "The key (to recovering public support) will depend on whether Fukuda can show true leadership through policy discussions and gain public acceptance while simultaneously stifling the DPJ."

A consumption tax hike would be unpopular with the public but the government will begin major talks on tax reform this fall. Analysts agree raising the levy is the key postsummit issue for the Fukuda administration.

The DPJ has come out against raising the tax but has yet to offer an alternative plan for increasing revenue, Kawakami pointed out.

Fukuda addressed the issue of raising the sales tax during a meeting Tuesday with heads and executives of major news agencies from the G8 countries, including The Associated Press, Reuters and AFP.

"With the 5 percent consumption tax, perhaps you could say we are carrying heavy budget deficits," Fukuda said. "So we are at a very important juncture, where we have to make up our mind in that respect."

But Jiro Yamaguchi, a professor of political science at Hokkaido University, speculated that it would be difficult for the ruling bloc-led government to agree on a consumption tax hike, and thus drafting the fiscal 2010 budget will be no picnic.

"I find it hard to believe the unpopular Fukuda Cabinet will be able to handle such an issue" as raising the consumption tax, Yamaguchi said. Fukuda may "try to avoid dissolving the Lower House and calling an election for as long as possible, but he will certainly be treading a thorny path."

Despite being troubled with a stagnant support rate and various blows from the opposition camp, Fukuda has managed to dodge most of the bullets in the ordinary Diet session, which was extended for six days.

The Diet session "was disappointing," Yamaguchi said.

"I thought the opposition parties would be stronger and force (Fukuda) into dissolving the Lower House and calling an election," Yamaguchi said. "I guess even an unpopular Cabinet can be hard to knock down if it refuses to budge."

After a long political tug of war with the DPJ, Fukuda was able to appoint Masaaki Shirakawa as Bank of Japan governor. Kiyohiko Nishimura was also sworn in as deputy chief of the BOJ, but the other deputy post remains vacant.

Fukuda and the ruling bloc also used their two-thirds majority in the Lower House and reinstated the higher rates for gasoline and other auto-related taxes for another 10 years, drawing harsh public criticism.

Amid strong protests from the DPJ, the "provisionally" added rates on gasoline and other auto-related taxes expired temporarily at the end of March, bringing down pump prices by about ¥25. The rates were imposed in the 1970s as a temporary step to solely fund road construction and have been in place ever since.

Fukuda, on the other hand, compromised and announced he would free up the road-related taxes from fiscal 2009 so the revenue can be used for other purposes.

Other positive moves included the passage of a Diet resolution to recognize the Ainu as indigenous, Japan's vote for the banning of cluster bombs and increasing financial aid for Africa.

"I think that (Fukuda) was troubled because of his unpopularity and felt a sense of urgency to do something," Yamaguchi said. "The Fukuda Cabinet can only win points through diplomacy, and that is the limitation of his government — because, for the public, it is the daily issues that they relate to, not about helping Africa."

Critics agree Fukuda will avoid dissolving the Lower House as long as possible, even perhaps to the end of its members' term in September 2009.

But Yamaguchi said that after the Hokkaido summit, both the LDP and DPJ will shift gears and start preparing for the post-Fukuda era.

Analysts say the LDP may try to install former Defense Minister Yuriko Koike or ex-Foreign Minister Taro Aso, both popular with the public, to head the LDP, and hence become prime minister, in order to win the next general election.

For its part, the DPJ has a presidential election coming up this September. It may decide to keep Ozawa, who helped the party seize a landslide victory last July in the Upper House election but lost some of its members' trust after shaking hands with Fukuda behind closed doors to form a "grand coalition" — a plan DPJ executives vetoed. Or it may choose someone else.

The decision is crucial for the DPJ because if it wins a majority in the next general election, it will finally seize control of the government, which has been run almost exclusively by the LDP since the end of World War II. But it's not going to be easy, Yamaguchi warned.

"In order for (the DPJ) to win and change government power, it needs to continue the appearance of a showdown," Yamaguchi said. "It is the aim of the opposition party not to reach an agreement with the ruling bloc and realize policies in the Diet — it needs to confront the ruling bloc."

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