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Wednesday, March 3, 2010

ANALYSIS

Decks cleared, DPJ focuses on poll

Budget hurdle over; party looks to deliver on campaign pledges


Staff writer

With Tuesday's Lower House passage of the fiscal 2010 budget securing the way for its enactment by the end of March, the ruling Democratic Party of Japan will now focus on passing as many key policies as it can to bring visible results to voters before the summer Upper House election.

But with the money scandals involving Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and DPJ kingpin Ichiro Ozawa eroding party approval ratings, and the ruling coalition facing disarray over stances on key issues, experts warn that much turbulence lies ahead.

"Diet deliberations will now focus on economic policies, with the issue of money and politics left on the back burner for the time being," said Nihon University political science professor Tomoaki Iwai.

Hatoyama has repeatedly indicated the government's priority is to pass the budget and implement policies that directly support the finances of the nation's households.

The DPJ is now expected to steamroll through several of its key bills, including the provision of a monthly allowance to families raising children and the introduction of a tuition-free high school program.

If enacted by the end of the month, high school tuitions would start being waived as early as April when the new school year begins, and families could begin receiving their ¥13,000 monthly allowances starting June — in time to appeal to voters before the July poll.

"The LDP will continue grilling the DPJ over its money scandals, but with its boycott of Diet budget deliberations ending in failure, and facing criticism from inside the party, I'm afraid they will have to start changing tactics," Iwai said.

The Liberal Democratic Party staged a botched three-day boycott of discussions on the fiscal 2010 budget last week in hopes of pressuring the DPJ into addressing its money scandals appropriately, but the DPJ refused to budge.

Instead, the ruling and opposition camps agreed to New Komeito's proposal of hosting a consultation body to discuss issues on money and politics once Diet deliberations wrap up.

"I think the LDP will now concentrate its energy in attacking the DPJ's economic policies — its weakest point," Iwai of Nihon University said.

Iwai, however, predicted that March and April will be a time of great political turbulence as pressing issues such as the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa could potentially have a serious impact on the fate of the administration.

The existing relocation plan agreed between Japan and the United States stipulates that Futenma's flight operations be transferred to a new airfield to be built on the coastal area of the U.S. Marines Corps Camp Schwab in Nago in the prefecture.

But Susumu Inamine, Nago's newly elected mayor, has been pressing the administration to give up on the plan, and has also expressed his opposition to another plan pushed by DPJ junior coalition partner Kokumin Shinto (People's New Party) to build the airfield at Camp Schwab without resorting to sea reclamation.

Opinions within the ruling coalition are divided on where to relocate the base, with the DPJ's third coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party, adamant that the base be relocated outside of Okinawa or Japan altogether, singling out Guam as a candidate site.

Yasuharu Ishizawa, professor of media and politics at Gakushuin Women's College, said that although the DPJ did not have to rely on the SDP's seats for an Upper House majority, that did not mean the relocation issue would reach a sound conclusion.

"Hatoyama pledged that he will reach a final decision by the end of May, but you never know what might happen before then," he said.

The ruling parties also face divisions on the issue of granting permanent foreign residents suffrage in local-level elections, with Kokumin Shinto leader Shizuka Kamei threatening his party will break from the coalition if the DPJ pushes on with the proposed bill.

Describing the political scene as "chaotic," Ishizawa said the combination of issues makes it difficult to predict what might happen in the upcoming months.

"A political realignment may also be on the horizon," Ishizawa said, pointing to the growing public support for Yoshimi Watanabe's Your Party, which reportedly has been attracting the interest of LDP members dissatisfied with the LDP's inability to cash in on the DPJ's falling popularity.

But holding the key to the outcome of the summer election might be "shadow shogun" Ozawa, who has recently avoided charges in connection with his fund management body's alleged erroneous political fund reporting, which has already led to the arrests of three of his current and former aides.

Ozawa's scandal, coupled with the prime minister's own illicit receipt of huge sums from his mother, the heiress to the Bridgestone tire empire, has taken a heavy toll on Cabinet approval ratings and has led to mounting public calls for Ozawa's resignation.

"If Ozawa decides to call it quits, Hatoyama will also be asked to take responsibility over his scandal," Iwai, an expert on political funds, said. "It's my personal opinion that Ozawa will remain in his post as secretary general, although you never know."

Declining approval ratings could force Ozawa to resign his post in a bid to revitalize his party, he said.



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