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Thursday, Dec. 25, 2008

Aso failing to lead LDP to promised land

Staff writer

When Taro Aso became prime minister in September, he was chosen by his peers in the Liberal Democratic Party as the man who would reverse their declining ratings. But after three months of the extraordinary Diet session, which closes Thursday, Aso's Cabinet already seems to be in trouble.

News photo
A lot on his mind: Prime Minister Taro Aso listens to questions during a Lower House Budget Committee session in October. AP PHOTO

Recent polls by various news organizations show Aso's support rate has declined sharply to around 20 percent. According to the most recent poll by Jiji Press, the approval rate for Aso's Cabinet has sunk to just 16.7 percent.

Aso has faced tough times during this Diet session, having to deal with the fallout from the global financial crisis as well as the opposition-controlled Upper House, which also proved a thorn in the sides of his predecessors Yasuo Fukuda and Shinzo Abe.

As of Monday, 18 bills have been passed during the extraordinary session. Among them is the revision of the Nationality Law, which will allow children born out of wedlock to Japanese men and foreign women to obtain Japanese nationality even if the father acknowledges paternity after the birth of the child.

Other bills that drew attention include the special antiterrorism bill and the first extra budget, which were Aso's priorities during the session.

Because the Democratic Party of Japan initially thought Aso would call a snap election once these bills cleared the Diet, the largest opposition party was surprisingly cooperative with the LDP-New Komeito ruling bloc in the deliberation process, which led to the smooth passage of the first extra budget by both houses.

And even the antiterrorism bill, which enables the Maritime Self-Defense Force to continue its refueling mission in the Indian Ocean, cleared the Lower House without much difficulty. This was a far cry from last year, when the bill sparked a heated battle between the ruling bloc and the opposition parties and led the government to extend the extraordinary session.

However, as Aso began showing his reluctance to call an election, the opposition changed its strategy. Toward the end of October, relations between the ruling coalition and the opposition deteriorated to the extent that the Upper House began to delay the process, and eventually rejected the bill.

In the end, the coalition in mid-December rammed the antiterrorism bill through the Lower House, along with a bank recapitalization bill that injects public funds into financial institutions to bolster their capital bases, by utilizing its two-thirds majority in the chamber. Under Article 59 of the Constitution, if the Upper House rejects a bill, the Lower House can override it with a two-thirds majority vote, which the ruling bloc currently has.

Since Fukuda's time in the divided Diet, the LDP and New Komeito used this tactic several times.

"Simply put, I think this Diet session got pushed around with the political condition," said Nobuhiro Hiwatari, political science professor at the institute of social science at the University of Tokyo.

"The divided Diet eventually affected the political situation," he said.

During this Diet session, opposition parties mainly pressured Aso in two areas, urging him to deal with the dire economic situation and calling for a general election.

"Rather than the political situation, policies come first," Aso repeatedly said, adding the government must not create a political vacuum during the global financial crisis.

But many speculated that the reason Aso decided to put off the election was because the LDP's approval rate was not as high as anticipated, and some media reported the ruling bloc would likely lose many seats based on their projections.

"The mission of Aso's Cabinet was to dissolve the Lower House and call for the general election," said DPJ Secretary General Yukio Hatoyama on Dec. 19.

"But for the party's own sake, the mission was put off with the excuse that the economic woes had to be addressed," he said.

Despite noting the economy needed swift remedial steps, Aso decided to submit the second extra budget, which includes a stimulus package, at the beginning of the next Diet session in January, instead of during this session.

In their face-to-face debate in November, DPJ President Ichiro Ozawa urged Aso to call a general election if he did not intend to submit the budget.

To this, Aso replied that, to compile the budget it was important to know this fiscal year's tax revenues and see how tax-related debates in December proceed. In addition, the first budget provided sufficient cover until the yearend, he said.

But even some LDP members, many of them younger generation lawmakers, criticized Aso for not submitting the extra budget during the current Diet session.

The economy has continued to worsen and more and more temp workers are being laid off. Amid the recession, Aso has made things even harder for himself by gaffes such as criticizing doctors for lacking common sense, or questioning why he had to pay the medical fee for seniors who are not making any effort to stay healthy.

Thus, although Aso on Dec. 12 disclosed a second stimulus package worth ¥23 trillion that includes measures to deal with the deteriorating employment situation, it did not help lift his approval rate.

The University of Tokyo's Hiwatari observed that while Aso's gaffes may have lessened his popularity to a certain degree, it is difficult to determine if it is the economical situation or Aso's response that are most to blame for the decline in his popularity.

"When the economy is bad, it is difficult to raise the approval rate unless there are clear messages" like former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi used to send out, Hiwatari said.

In an apparent effort to demonstrate their initiative, and the ruling bloc's lack thereof, the DPJ, Social Democratic Party and Kokumin Shinto (People's New Party) submitted their own employment bills last week.

Stressing that lawmakers must do something to bolster employment before year's end, they passed a set of bills in the Upper House, only to see them rejected, as expected, in the ruling bloc-controlled Lower House.

In a final attack on Aso before the Diet session closes, the DPJ on Wednesday submitted a nonbinding bill to dissolve the Lower House, only to be immediately rejected. But LDP member Yoshimi Watanabe, a former administrative reform minister who has been critical of Aso's policies, agreed with the bill.

Although the extraordinary session will close, the ordinary Diet session is just 11 days away, and its main focus will probably be the budget and its related bills.

As if to prepare for the new year, LDP faction leaders and heavyweights have reportedly been meeting in recent weeks to rally behind Aso.

Commenting on this move, Hiwatari said the LDP probably realized the best way to boost its popularity is to carry out effective policies, including next year's budget.

"That's probably the only choice for them," he said.

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