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Saturday, Sep. 22, 2012
Noda now facing stronger fight from opposition camp
Moving forward, pressure to call general election will only grow
By NATSUKO FUKUE and MASAMI ITO
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda cruised Friday to re-election as president of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, but how long he will hold on to his position remains to be seen.
Observers say Noda will now face less strife within his party but face even tougher pressure from the opposition parties, which are likely to demand he dissolve the Lower House by holding critical government-sponsored bills hostage.
Media polls suggest that if a general election were held now, the DPJ would suffer a crushing defeat. Losing its Lower House majority would force Noda to step down as both prime minister and DPJ president.
Meanwhile the popularity of the Liberal Democratic Party, the main opposition force, is also dwindling and it probably wouldn't be able to secure a majority either.
A general election thus would throw national politics into chaos and possibly trigger a major realignment of the current political parties.
Noda has indicated he may delay calling the election as long as possible in apparent hope of rebuilding public support both for him and the DPJ. But how long he can hold out is unclear. Some of the candidates running for president of the LDP have indicated they would refuse to cooperate with Noda if they win next Wednesday's party vote.
One of the candidates, Shigeru Ishiba, said last week that the LDP should cooperate on passing the bill to issue deficit-covering bonds that Noda desperately needs to avoid a government shutdown.
But the other candidates — LDP Secretary General Nobuteru Ishihara, former Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Upper House member Yoshimasa Hayashi — all appear reluctant to pass the bill and save the Noda administration if he keeps dragging out the Lower House dissolution, despite having promised to call the poll "soon."
The DPJ can't pass legislation without support from the LDP because the Upper House is controlled by the opposition.
"The bond bill needs to be passed. The LDP shouldn't take it hostage," said Yasuharu Ishizawa, a professor of politics and media at Gakushuin Women's College.
The bill is needed for the government to issue special bonds to cover 40 percent of the current budget. Noda also needs to enact an electoral reform bill to correct vote-value disparities, as seen in the 2009 Lower House election, which the Supreme Court has ruled are unconstitutional.
One area where Noda can find a modest amount of comfort is that he now faces fewer enemies within his own party, as many of his fiercest critics have bolted.
The exodus started when the DPJ agreed in June with the LDP and New Komeito on a tax reform bill that will raise the 5 percent consumption tax to 8 percent in April 2014 and 10 percent in October 2015 to cover snowballing social security costs.
The move prompted 49 of the party's Diet members to jump ship and join a party inaugurated by former DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa.
The people still in the party who oppose Noda "don't have the power to confront him because they were defeated in (Wednesday's presidential) election," said Kazuhisa Kawakami, a professor of political science at Meiji Gakuin University.
Political commentators say Noda is likely to appoint some of the remaining rebels to the Cabinet or executive party posts. He reportedly plans to reshuffle the Cabinet as early as Oct. 1.
"It's typical (for a party leader) to fix internal rifts through a Cabinet reshuffle," Kawakami said.
Another factor that may help Noda boost his popularity is the current diplomatic crisis, Kawakami said.
"Japan is in a state of national crisis . . . and the public's focus is on how the government is dealing with the diplomatic problems with China and South Korea," he said. "The row with China could be the wonder drug that Noda needs to regain his power."
The other dispute that has flared up involves the South Korean-controlled islets in the Sea of Japan.
South Korean President Lee Myung Bak made an unprecedented visit to the rocky outcroppings, called Takeshima in Japan and Dokdo in South Korea, in August amid local pressure to raise the comfort women issue, Japan's euphemism for the women it forced into sexual slavery during the war. He also demanded an apology from Emperor Akihito over Japan's colonial rule of South Korea between 1910 and 1945, triggering public outrage.
In an attempt to channel Japan's anger, Noda held an unusual news conference in late August to clarify Japan's claim to the islets.
Public support, as measured by media polls, for the Noda Cabinet turned upward in early September.
According to a survey conducted by Jiji Press, the administration's support rate had been decreasing steadily since its current configuration was set one year ago, but rose to 23.3 percent in September, a 3.5 percent increase from the month before.