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Saturday, Sep. 8, 2012
Rocky, extended Diet session over; bills, treaties left in lurch
Hague, vote-value, deficit bond measures fail to clear grudge fest
By MASAMI ITO
The extended 229-day Diet session closes with a whimper Saturday, with piles of important bills and treaties left unaddressed and voters left only with an image of lawmakers engaging in political maneuvering for their own goals — particularly those over the contentious sales tax hike and over the next Lower House election.
And now both the ruling Democratic Party of Japan and the Liberal Democratic Party are focused on one thing — the presidential elections for both parties to be held this month to choose the leaders who will guide their parties in that next general election.
Political insiders and observers believe Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's re-election as DPJ chief, to be determined Sept. 21, is pretty much a given, especially since popular Environment Minister Goshi Hosono announced Friday he does not intend to run.
But pundits are quick to note that the DPJ has a slim chance of retaining control of the lower chamber amid the falling public support for Noda's Cabinet in media polls.
Voters have grown disenchanted over the DPJ-led administration's inability to overcome the political chaos in the divided Diet and deliver on campaign promises it made for the 2009 Lower House election that brought it to power for the first time.
Noda has also sparked public resentment for his unpopular drive to raises taxes, as he has failed to show any vision of how the increased revenue will be used to support the aging society and snowballing social security costs.
During the ordinary Diet session, Noda tried to execute leadership by putting "an end to on-the-fence politics" and passing the bill to double the 5 percent consumption tax by October 2015.
But during the process, DPJ kingpin Ichiro Ozawa, who opposed the tax hike, left to form a new party, deepening voters' impression that the existing parties are more interested in wrangling over political power than getting anything done.
"The DPJ had no outlook on how to maintain power after the tax hike, focusing only on trying to come out with as little damage as possible. And now it is in a situation that if an election were to take place, the DPJ would lose badly and be forced out of power," said Sadafumi Kawato, a professor of political science at the University of Tokyo.
Noda is the third DPJ prime minister since 2009, when the party wrested power from the long-ruling LDP.
But since then, the DPJ has drawn criticism from the public for blunders over key issues, including failing to move the contentious Futenma air base out of Okinawa and enacting the tax hike bill after promising during the 2009 campaign not to raise the unpopular sales tax over the next four years.
The support rate for the Noda Cabinet has been steadily moving downhill, finally falling below 20 percent for the first time in August, according to a Jiji Press poll.
"Can the DPJ lawmakers devise a last-ditch plan to remain in power? I don't think so. All they can do is postpone the election as long as possible," said Tomoaki Iwai, a political science professor at Nihon University.
Meanwhile, LDP President Sadakazu Tanigaki is also on shaky ground and his re-election is in doubt. The party plans to hold its presidential election Sept. 26, less than a week after the DPJ.
Often regarded as being weak-kneed when it comes to power politics, Tanigaki tried but failed to execute strong leadership by demanding over and over that Noda dissolve the Lower House and call a snap election.
Tanigaki managed to get Noda to vaguely promise to dissolve the chamber "soon" in exchange of supporting the consumption tax hike.
But he later turned around and submitted a censure motion against the prime minister in the Upper House even though the DPJ and LDP have few disagreements over key policy matters, most notably the tax hike.
Tanigaki's about-face led the voters to believe the LDP is trying to force Noda to dissolve the Lower House while the DPJ's support rate is dwindling, and giving little attention to substantive policy matters that directly affect voters.
"I think Tanigaki became anxious and acted hastily. He knew he would have difficulty being re-elected so he decided to have a showdown with Noda and tried to write a scenario to force Noda to dissolve the Lower House," University of Tokyo's Kawato said. "And now, even many veteran lawmakers have decided not to support him."
Political experts believe Noda probably won't be able to postpone dissolving the Lower House and he is unlikely to implement any more new contentious policies, given the divided Diet and his weakened power over his own party members.
Meanwhile, some critically important bills didn't make it through the divided Diet, most notably one to issue special deficit-covering bonds to cover a large portion of the fiscal 2012 budget and one to partially correct the vote-value disparity in general elections.
These two bills must be dealt with in an extraordinary Diet session that may convene in October.
"There is no way that the bond bill can go without being enacted because without it the government won't be able to operate. It is already affecting the budget," Kawato said. "I don't think the next Lower House election should be held without at least some sort of revision" on the electoral system either.
Without the enactment of the bond bill and legislation to rectify the vote-value disparity, which the Supreme Court ruled as being in a state of "unconstitutionality," critics say the results of any elections could eventually be judged as unconstitutional.
During the current Diet session, which started in January, only 66 percent of newly submitted government-sponsored bills cleared both chambers.
Political squabbling took center stage last month when the nonbinding censure motion against Noda was approved by the Upper House, stopping almost all Diet deliberations.
Thus the government also failed to live up to its promise to the international community to pass a bill to endorse the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction to prevent estranged parents from spiriting a couple's children across borders.
Noda also couldn't gain Diet approval of the proposed commissioners for the new nuclear regulatory agency to be launched this month and will be forced to make the unusual move of appointing them under his authority.
"Confrontation between the DPJ and the LDP and New Komeito have risen clearly to the surface. The two sides are now in direct opposition and closed the Diet without deliberating on various bills," Kawato said. "Noda will just have to be happy going down in history as the prime minister who raised the consumption tax."