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Abe closes out uneventful legislative session unscathed

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

This year’s 150-day Diet session closed Wednesday in turmoil as opposition parties started blocking deliberation procedures and submitted a censure motion against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in an apparent effort to show off their presence ahead of the Upper House election next month.

In the wake of the political tussle, four major government bills died in the opposition-controlled Upper House, although the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition force, earlier supported all of them and helped them get through the Lower House.

But except for the past few days, the session was rather boring, with a definite lack of controversial issues highlighting policy difference between the ruling and opposition camps.

Opposition parties, in particular the DPJ, have failed to find any critical issues to differentiate themselves from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, as public support for the administration remains high, thanks in no small part to the apparent success of “Abenomics.”

A public opinion poll by NHK conducted between June 7 and 8 found 62 percent backing for Abe’s Cabinet. The support rate in NHK polling has remained in the 60s since January.

Opposition forces didn’t even get a chance to attack Cabinet members for gaffes or political scandals, which has become the norm during televised budget committee sessions in the spring.

“Usually in spring, public support rates in media polls fall because of budget committee sessions at the Diet,” a senior official close to Abe said earlier this year. “But this year, (committee sessions ) were quiet.”

With the upcoming Upper House election the priority, Abe’s government carefully avoided submitting major controversial bills to the divided Diet. In addition, Cabinet members were strongly warned not to make any gaffes, a lesson learned from Abe’s first prime ministership of 2006 and 2007.

Indeed, some key ministers may still be traumatized by what happened to Abe’s first Cabinet.

Back then, a number of scandals exploded, which were then fodder for gossip TV shows.

In addition to a number of gaffes by Cabinet members, the scandals included the massive data loss in the public pension system and the suicide of farm minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka after he was grilled in the Diet over opaque use of political funds.

“It was in May (2007) when the pension problem exploded and farm minister Matsuoka committed suicide,” one of Abe’s close aides warned in early April. “You never can tell what will happen before the Upper House election.”

“Abe’s first Cabinet suffered a lot from gaffes,” another key aide said soon after Abe launched his second Cabinet in December. “So this time we’re going to be very careful about what we say.”

The aide said that apart from the chief Cabinet secretary, ministers were ordered not to express their views on sensitive historical issues in public.

Indeed, this Cabinet has been quick to suppress any problematic gaffes by repeating official apologies.

Abe himself made a stir in April by saying there is no clear definition of “war of aggression” and Japan’s wars of the 1930s and 1940s can be viewed differently depending on which side one is on.

But to reduce the political damage, Abe and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga repeatedly told the Diet that the administration upholds the past government official apology and views on wars.

Given the low profile maintained by the Cabinet, opposition lawmakers have been given few opportunities to be featured either on the TV news or gossip shows.

Among bills that were enacted during this year’s ordinary session were those to endorse and implement the Hague Convention on international child abductions, a major milestone for international couples who are in dispute over their children.

Also enacted was a controversial bill to prohibit retailers from advertising that they are offering discounts matching the consumption tax, which is scheduled to be increased to 8 percent next year. This legislation is designed to protect smaller retailers against major stores.

Among the four bills that were killed was one to set up a government-backed corporation to enable regional power companies to supply electricity to each other across regions.

This government-sponsored bill was considered the first step for more liberalization of the power market. Another bill that died Wednesday would have strengthened punishment for illegally receiving welfare benefits.

The DPJ supported those bills in the Lower House, but they were scrapped in the Upper House as opposition forces, including the DPJ, submitted the censure motion against Abe and refused to hold another plenary session on the bills.