Scandal-ridden Diet session comes to end

Unpopular pension-reform bills passed amid political grandstanding

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The 150-day Diet session, dubbed the “pension Diet,” reaches its end Wednesday, but not before seeing a raft of scandals over the pension-reform issue and lawmakers trying to grab attention — including a diplomatic foray to North Korea — ahead of the House of Councilors election.

While both opposition and ruling parties suffered hits while warring over the public pension reform bills, some political analysts say the damage to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party appears more serious.

Reforms to make the pension system sustainable in Japan’s rapidly aging society was to be session’s biggest focus.

But both ruling and opposition lawmakers mainly spent the session trying to hurt the other side politically, calling out lawmakers who failed to pay the mandatory premiums into the National Pension Program, said Fukashi Horie, a political science professor and the president of Shobi University.

“It’s regrettable that they failed to have substantial discussions on policy matters.”

According to a poll published Monday by the Mainichi Shimbun, the approval rate for the Cabinet of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi dropped 12 percentage points from May to 46 percent.

The rapid fall can mainly be attributed to the public’s disapproval of the unpopular government-sponsored pension bills, the Mainichi said.

As many as 70 percent of those surveyed said they did not approve of the pension reform package forcibly enacted June 5 by the ruling bloc after knock-down, drag-out fights in both Diet chambers.

A poll by TV Asahi last week saw a 10-point drop in the Cabinet’s approval rate to 44 percent.

The reforms will raise pension premiums every year until 2017 while gradually reducing benefits, to maintain the pension system as the population ages.

But the legislation doesn’t address the huge burden gap among people of different occupations and generations despite mounting calls to correct such fundamental disparities.

“I am aware that many people may not approve of the contents of the pension reform,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda said during a news conference Monday when asked to comment on the sharp fall in the administration’s approval rating.

“But I also think many people do not fully understand the merits of the pension reform . . . the pension system will get worse if we don’t go ahead with the reform now,” Hosoda said.

Election consultant Takayoshi Miyagawa had predicted that the LDP would win more than 56 seats in the Upper House election, expected for July 11, based on poll results in May that showed the Koizumi Cabinet’s approval rating had jumped after his sudden visit to Pyongyang on May 22.

But Miyagawa now says the hurdle is higher for the LDP to win more than 51 seats, the politically critical level for Koizumi because it is the pre-election force that the LDP has maintained in the chamber.

Half of the 242 Upper House seats will be up for grab in the upcoming election. If the LDP can win more than 56 seats, it will have a single-party majority in the Upper House for the first time in 15 years, counting the 65 seats it holds that are not being contested this time.

The recent falls in Koizumi’s popularity may also show that his tactics of staging dramatic surprises no longer works, analysts said.

His May visit to Pyongyang to bring back children of repatriated abductees was considered a strong card for the Upper House election.

After all, his September 2002 visit to Pyongyang pushed up dwindling approval rates by more than 30 points to nearly 70 percent in some polls. During that summit, Kim Jong Il admitted North Korea abducted Japanese and apologized, which led to the homecoming of five abductees the next month.

But the latest fall in the Mainichi survey offset an 11-point rise to 58 percent in a May 23 poll, taken one day after Koizumi’s second visit to North Korea.

Keeping public support rates high is critical for the lone wolf prime minister who has few allies within his own LDP.

“We have to win support of the people before the next media poll,” a senior government official said.

Meanwhile, the main opposition DPJ did not escape from the “pension Diet” unscathed.

Party leaders Naoto Kan and Ichiro Ozawa suffered in the pension-premium scandal for failing to pay their mandatory premiums for the basic pension system for certain periods in the past. Kan was forced to step down as DPJ chief and Ozawa had to retract his bid to take over the party.

The DPJ was also criticized for resorting to old-fashioned “ox-walk” tactics, in which lawmakers take hours to make their way at a snail’s pace to the ballot box simply to delay the enactment of bills.

“The ox walk is outdated and not something that people are willing to praise,” Horie of Shobi University said.

The pension showdown, in the end, may end up driving voters away from the ballot box at the election.

According to a poll by the Asahi Shimbun published Saturday, only 23 percent of the respondents said they “are very interested” in the Upper House election.

Yoshiaki Kobayashi, a professor of political science at Keio University, expects a close match between the ruling and opposition camps in the upcoming election.

Even if Koizumi’s approval rates has dropped in the latest polls, Kobayashi said, they are still high and are at about the same levels as in April, before his Pyongyang visit.

“At this pace, both the LDP and DPJ will make a good fight in the Upper House election,” he said.