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Thursday, June 4, 2009

Diet extension gives Aso breathing space

Analysts split on when he will call election


By MASAMI ITO and ALEX MARTIN
Staff writers

Now that the Diet session has been extended until July 28, the spotlight has shifted back to Prime Minister Taro Aso as politicians and analysts try to predict when he will dissolve the Lower House and call a snap election.

Political insiders and commentators speculate that Aso, seeking a ratings boost by appearing on the global stage, will not dissolve the house before the July 8-10 Group of Eight summit in Italy. The Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election on July 12 will probably provide enough reason for a further delay.

Some analysts say the general election, which must be called by September, could be held as early as Aug. 2, while others think Aso may try to push it back to the end of August or early September. A mid-August race seems unlikely because it would conflict with the Bon holiday.

"Aso's real intention is to go to the summit," said Kenji Yamaoka, the Democratic Party of Japan's Diet affairs chief. "The schedule is going to be basically planned so that Aso will be able to remain in power for as long as he can, and hold the election on Aug. 30 or Sept. 6."

As always, Aso is playing his cards close to his vest.

"Regarding the dissolution of the house, I will decide after taking various factors into consideration," he said earlier this week, refusing to elaborate.

With the 55-day extension of the Diet session, Aso and the Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito ruling bloc have gained both more time to deal with a raft of pending legislation as well as breathing space on when to call the election.

The extra budget for fiscal 2009, one of Aso's key goals, cleared the Diet last week, but related bills are still being deliberated in both Diet chambers.

Other pending legislation includes the antipiracy bill that would allow the Maritime Self-Defense Force to protect ships of any nationality from pirate attack, and the contentious revision of the organ transplant law.

"I will devote all of my energy to see that the remaining bills are approved," Aso said this week.

Although the most likely scenario is for Aso to dissolve the Lower House during the current session, it is also possible he may convene an extraordinary session in late August or early September if his ratings remain unfavorable.

There is no official rule against the prime minister dissolving the house when the Diet is not in session, but that would be unprecedented.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura, however, called the current session "the final" one before the election, suggesting Aso will dissolve the Lower House before July 28.

Kazuhisa Kawakami, a political science professor at Meiji Gakuin University, said it probably won't make much difference when Aso calls the election because there's little chance he will come up with a last-minute plan to attract voters.

The best time Aso could have called the election was last October or November, just after he became prime minister, according to Kawakami.

"The right to dissolve the Lower House is a weapon only the prime minister wields," he said, suggesting that Aso, by not calling the election, may come off looking as if he blew his chance.

Kawakami said he foresees the support rate for the Aso Cabinet tumbling as the public ire shifts away from the DPJ and the funding scandal that ousted Ichiro Ozawa as its president, and back to Aso and his apparent leadership shortcomings.

Aso was dealt a couple of setbacks in May.

The first involved his friend and political ally Yoshitada Konoike, the former deputy chief Cabinet secretary, who allegedly used his lawmaker's special rail pass for an extramarital tryst. Aso refused to fire him, but Konoike was eventually forced to step down anyway.

More recently, Aso's plan to split the health ministry failed following strong protests from within his own party. In the end, the prime minister, often criticized for policy flip-flops, was once again grilled for backtracking and claiming he had never given orders to divide the ministry in the first place.

"People's attention is going to shift from the DPJ to Aso's policy flip-flops and the way he protects his allies," Kawakami said. "Aso's lack of leadership is going to stand out once again . . . and while it may not be as strong as (before), I feel that public sentiment is leaning toward a change in government power."

The DPJ has so far benefited from Ozawa's exit as party leader and replacement by Yukio Hatoyama, who served as secretary general.

In a Kyodo News survey immediately after Hatoyama was elected DPJ president on May 16, 44 percent of respondents said they supported him as the next prime minister, while Aso was backed by only 32 percent. In the same survey, 25.2 percent said they would support the LDP in the election, while 30 percent declared they would vote for the DPJ.

This represented a dramatic turnaround for the DPJ, which had been bleeding away public support after the arrest and indictment of Ozawa's chief aide over the scandal involving allegedly illegal contributions from Nishimatsu Construction Co.

"People see Hatoyama as Ozawa's puppet, but the majority are satisfied with the fact that Ozawa has stepped back," said Hiyasuki Miyake, a political commentator. "People were mainly critical of Ozawa, but he has stepped into the shadows for the time being."

Miyake said the public is tired of the old LDP politics and looking for a change.

"People are just sick of the LDP and think a change in government may be good," Miyake said. "Things may not change for the better immediately even if the DPJ takes over . . . but the dominant public opinion is that there should be a change."



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