DPJ SMELLS BLOOD

Abe & Co. stumbling toward a Diet showdown

by Hiroko Nakata

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s political future hinges on how he manages the extraordinary Diet session that starts Monday.

Abe must face down the Democratic Party of Japan, which is poised to pounce on the political funds scandals rocking his Cabinet and opposes extending the Maritime Self-Defense Force logistic mission in the Indian Ocean.

In the worst-case scenario, Abe could even be forced to step down as prime minister, or dissolve the Lower House and call a general election — a gamble he has little chance of winning, observers say.

“Any more exits by ministers would put the Cabinet on the edge of going down,” said Rei Shiratori, president of the Institute for Political Studies in Japan.

Abe has had to replace five ministers since taking office last September, including four involved in funds scandals. Another resignation would only heighten the pressure on Abe to resign and eventually lead to a censure motion against the prime minister in the opposition-controlled Upper House, Shiratori said.

Since the motion would be nonbinding and only represent the voice of the Upper House instead of the more powerful Lower House, Abe would not have to step down, but his public popularity would only decline further and calls for his ouster would mount, Shiratori said.

The ministers’ funds scandals and gaffes have already called Abe’s leadership into question. The political blue blood’s recent attempt to repair the damage by reshuffling the Cabinet merely led to a new round of revelations of falsified political funds reports involving new Cabinet members.

Last week, farm minister Takehiko Endo and Vice Foreign Minister Yukiko Sakamoto stepped down over political funds scandals, only a week after Abe reshuffled his Cabinet due to the Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito ruling bloc’s drubbing in the July Upper House election.

“Along with the public pension problem, political funds are the issue the public has the strongest interest in,” said Tomoaki Iwai, a professor of political science at Nihon University.

“The issue will be the biggest focus of the upcoming Diet session,” he said.

The DPJ-led opposition camp, now in control of the House of Councilors thanks to its landslide victory in the July 29 poll, plans to scrutinize Cabinet ministers and other political appointees by executing a parliamentary order for disclosure.

“The DPJ is likely to demand testimony and request documents in the Diet, which is highly likely to detect new funding problems, especially those related to politicians who have top posts in organizations in industries they affect,” Iwai said.

The DPJ has already indicated that it will submit a nonbinding censure motion against Environment Minister Ichiro Kamoshita, who Wednesday admitted loans he made to his own fund management body have been misreported by the group since 1996.

Abe’s LDP was already hit hard in the July election, which came on the heels of repeated political funding scandals involving his former Cabinet members.

Two ministers stepped down and farm minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka committed suicide before the Upper House election, and Norihiko Akagi, Matsuoka’s successor, quit in scandal after the poll, despite calls from within the LDP for him to exit before July 29. Following the Cabinet reshuffle, Akagi’s replacement, Takehiko Endo, became the fifth to leave Abe’s Cabinet.

Another highlight of the 62-day Diet session is the ruling bloc’s showdown with the opposition over the controversial antiterrorism law, which allows the MSDF mission in the Indian Ocean in support of the NATO-led antiterrorism campaign in and around Afghanistan. The ruling bloc wants the DPJ to agree to extend the law before it expires on Nov. 1.

But the DPJ is digging in its heels. DPJ President Ichiro Ozawa last month turned down a request by U.S. Ambassador to Japan Thomas Schieffer to agree to extend the special antiterrorism law.

Instead, the DPJ has floated the idea of a new law to allow Japan to only provide humanitarian aid to the Afghan people.

If the opposition camp moves to block the extension of the current antiterrorism law, the government may have to draw up a new dispatch law, Defense Minister Masahiko Komura told reporters this week.

Because the LDP-New Komeito coalition no longer has a majority in the Upper House, it cannot ram through bills as it did in the previous Diet session that ended July 5.

“The bill may not even be voted on (before the scheduled Nov. 10 close of the Diet session),” said Shiratori of the Institute for Political Studies in Japan.

Meanwhile, some observers worry that both parties are dwelling too much on the money scandals and avoiding important matters, including national security.

“Politicians should start discussing what they have to discuss — policies,” said Jun Iio, a professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.