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Saturday, Dec. 10, 2011

Censure votes may paralyze Cabinet


By MASAMI ITO and NATSUKO FUKUE
Staff writers

Upper House-approved censure motions against two key members of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's Cabinet carry no legal weight but analysts say the damage is serious and will no doubt weaken the Democratic Party of Japan-led government.

Noda has repeatedly expressed his intention to retain Yasuo Ichikawa as defense minister and Kenji Yamaoka as consumer affairs minister. But ignoring the censure motions in the opposition-controlled Upper House will trigger harsh criticism from the opposition parties and interparty discussions over pending matters, including a consumption tax hike, could reach a deadlock.

"The impact of the censure motions is extremely big," said political analyst Minoru Morita. By keeping the two ministers, "the Cabinet will become half-paralyzed."

Drawing a big question mark over his ability to head the Defense Ministry, Ichikawa has been under fire for a series of gaffes by himself and a subordinate not only from the opposition camp but also from lawmakers in the ruling DPJ-Kokumin Shinto (People's New Party) bloc.

Ichikawa recently admitted during Diet deliberations that he "did not know the details" of the 1995 rape of a girl in Okinawa by three U.S. servicemen and called himself "an amateur" on security issues. Meanwhile, a senior defense official reportedly used a Japanese word for "rape" when referring to the government's submission of an environmental report in connection with the contentious relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.

Yamaoka on the other hand has been repeatedly criticized for allegedly having ties with multilevel marketing companies despite being the minister of consumer affairs and chairman of the National Public Safety Commission, which oversees the police.

Pundits said Ichikawa and the Defense Ministry official's gaffes were serious, and the public won't support Noda's decision to keep him in the Cabinet.

The government plans to submit the environmental assessment report on the Henoko area in Okinawa by the end of the year, a procedure necessary to implement the Futenma relocation, but critics doubt whether Ichikawa would be able to do so amid the deep anger of the prefecture's residents.

"Nobody will deal with Ichikawa (as a result of the censure motions) and he will lose negotiating power. He will eventually have to quit," Morita said.

Despite Noda's unwavering support for the two ministers, pundits agree he will likely reshuffle the Cabinet before next year's ordinary Diet session to ensure the opposition won't boycott deliberations. A similar tactic was used in January by then Prime Minister Naoto Kan after his chief Cabinet secretary, Yoshito Sengoku, and transport minister Sumio Mabuchi were slapped with censure motions.

"Noda will have to hold a small reshuffle because without it Diet deliberations on the budget will be deadlocked," said Tomoaki Iwai, a political science professor at Nihon University. But "with the minor reshuffle, the Noda Cabinet will weaken."

The prime minister is stuck between a rock and a hard place because both Ichikawa and Yamaoka are members of DPJ don Ichiro Ozawa's group. Noda appointed them in September when one of his key tasks was to heal the split between Ozawa's supporters and foes when Kan was prime minister.

Ozawa, who is on trial over a political money scandal, has the support of about 120 lawmakers in the DPJ and continues to exert influence over the party's decisions on key policies. Most recently, he protested Noda's intention to call for a consumption tax hike to tackle snowballing social security costs.

"When Noda replaces the two ministers next year, he will owe one to Ozawa, causing his power in the party to weaken a bit," Iwai said. "But that is exactly the kind of thinking" the opposition parties had in mind when they submitted the censure motions.

The doors of the extraordinary Diet session closed with a bang Friday with the passage of the censure bids, leaving a pile of important bills to the next ordinary session, including legislation to temporarily cut public servants' pay by 7.8 percent to help fund reconstruction measures.

Noda's focus will now turn to drafting the proposed consumption tax hike that he hopes will be the basis for kicking off discussions with the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito, the two largest opposition parties. But given strong internal opposition to the tax hike as well as the passage of the censure motions, critics aren't optimistic that Noda will be able to wield the necessary clout for such talks.

"Noda lacks leadership. He couldn't even (dismiss) the two ministers," said political analyst Morita. "It won't be long before Noda and his Cabinet are forced to resign en masse or (Noda) is forced to dissolve the Lower House and call a snap election."



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