Abe has high hopes for Diet session

Referendum bill, education reform on agenda, plus July election

by Hiroko Nakata

The Diet convened Thursday, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party aiming to get key bills passed, including one to set up a referendum on amending the Constitution and several more aimed at education reform.

Abe’s public approval rating has dropped since he took office and he hopes to gain some political momentum for the House of Councilors election in July by getting legislation enacted on his key agenda issues by the June 23 end of the Diet session.

“Through discussions at the Diet, I would like to explain to the public the direction we are trying to take,” Abe told reporters Wednesday evening.

He will give his policy speech Friday. A close aide said there will probably be no extension of the session as lawmakers have to hit the campaign trail to prepare for the election July 22.

To that end, the Cabinet and the LDP have reduced the number of issues on the Diet’s agenda and have urged ministries to limit the number of bills up for deliberations during the 150-day regular session.

The Upper House election is his first nationwide poll as leader and pundits say it will show whether the public supports his aims.

Abe has said that amending the Constitution will be a key issue in his party’s campaign.

“Sixty years have passed since the enactment of the Constitution,” Abe said Jan. 4 in his first speech of the year. “Now is the time to clarify (the LDP’s) intention to create a new Constitution for a new era.”

One of the top issues on the LDP’s agenda is to pass a bill to set the legal guidelines to hold a national referendum so they can change the Constitution.

Amending the charter requires support of two-thirds of both the houses in the Diet and must get the public’s backing in a national referendum. However, Japan has no legal framework to enable the government to hold a referendum.

The ruling bloc — the LDP and New Komeito — and the Democratic Party of Japan, the main opposition party, have been working together to reach a consensus to jointly revise their separate referendum bills, already submitted to the Diet last year.

However, reports are that the ruling bloc is ready to seek a vote on its own bill if no accord can be reached in the current session.

The ruling bloc and the DPJ have already agreed on setting the minimum voting age for the referendum at 18. But they still differ on whether the referendum should be limited to changing the Constitution — as the LDP wants — or be general to cover any key issue — the DPJ’s position.

But it is unclear whether the referendum bill will help Abe mark a turnaround in his popular support. Hidekazu Kawai, a professor of political science at Chubu University, said the bill has not attracted much public attention.

Another key Abe agenda item is education reform.

Abe aims to improve the deteriorating academic performance and what is widely perceived as weak morals of students at public schools. Recent problems, including a spate of suicides late last year by children who said they had been bullied to the point of killing themselves, have added to the government’s sense of urgency.

On Wednesday, Abe’s new education advisory panel, the Education Rebuilding Council, released proposals to help improve the school system. Their ideas include increasing the number of class hours by 10 percent and measures to increase discipline, which the panel says will reduce bullying and classroom chaos.

At the panel’s meeting the same day, Abe asked education minister Bunmei Ibuki to speed up work on bills to back up some of the proposals, including an increase in government supervision over boards of education, introduction of a license renewal system for teachers and the new position of vice principal.

Abe also plans to have a bill submitted to break up the Social Insurance Agency into six divisions and move some of its work to the private sector. The agency has been hit with a series of public pension-related scandals.

The Cabinet and LDP have already shelved a number of contentious bills, including one that would have eliminated overtime pay for senior managers, an idea that met with strong public opposition.

The government is also expected to give up its idea of strengthening the powers of special advisers to the prime minister — a bid to boost the control of the prime minister’s office over policymaking.

Budget committee deliberations over the 2007 fiscal budget will also begin soon, and the opposition parties are expected to use the closely watched sessions to go after the LDP over recent political funds scandals involving Cabinet ministers.

Administrative reform minister Genichiro Sata resigned late last month after admitting there were accounting irregularities involving one of his political support organizations.

Education minister Ibuki, farm minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka and LDP policy chief Shoichi Nakagawa drew flak this month over questionable expenses by their offices.

But the opposition may have a hard time going after the government. House of Councilors Vice President Giichi Tsunoda, who was elected to the position from the DPJ, on Tuesday had to fend off allegations that his campaign headquarters did not report 25.2 million yen in political donations in 2001.