No sooner had Yasuo Fukuda formed his Cabinet on Tuesday than attention was being focused on how soon Japan’s new leader will be forced to dissolve the House of Representatives for a snap general election.
Experts say Fukuda obviously needs to buy time to revive the credibility of the Liberal Democratic Party and the ruling coalition, which was shaken badly by its stunning July election loss and the collapse of Shinzo Abe’s scandal-tainted administration.
But the opposition camp, led by the Democratic Party of Japan — now the top force in the House of Councilors — is keen to pressure Fukuda into dissolving the powerful lower chamber as quickly as possible.
The loss of the Upper House majority will stymie Fukuda’s attempts to push through his legislative agenda. Although the Constitution allows the ruling coalition to use its two-thirds majority in the Lower House to pass bills by overriding the Upper House, there is concern even in the coalition that using this option is risky and could further alienate voters.
Fukuda is expected to try holding off a snap election until at least next spring, but even that might not be easy.
“The Fukuda Cabinet’s task is to hold and win the general election,” said Norihiko Narita, a political science professor at Surugadai University in Saitama Prefecture. Narita was a former secretary for Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa between 1993 and 1994.
“Lower House members still have two more years for their tenure, but Fukuda cannot avoid (dissolving the chamber) at one point or another,” Narita said.
Two years have passed since Abe’s predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, led the LDP to a landslide victory in the 2005 Lower House election, which he called after opponents within his own LDP blocked his postal privatization agenda. He then used the public’s backing to salvage the bills and purge the party of resistance.
“From the viewpoint of democracy, I believe it would be difficult for the new prime minister” to avoid calling a general election to test the popular mandate of the new administration, he said.
Tomoaki Iwai, a political science professor at Nihon University in Tokyo, said Fukuda will probably not dissolve the Lower House until at least next spring because the new leader has pledged to honor Abe’s promise to finish sorting out the mess over scrambled public pension payment records by March.
To regain voter support lost in the July election, Fukuda will have to at least introduce some fiscal steps aimed at narrowing the income disparity between urban and rural regions before the general election, said Surugadai’s Narita.
In the July Upper House election, the LDP lost heavily in its traditional rural strongholds. Many of its lawmakers say rural voters are angry they had to suffer from Koizumi’s structural reforms, which cut back on public works spending and government subsidies.
One possible window for dissolving the Lower House will form around June next year after the Diet has approved the fiscal 2008 budget, Narita said.
But that may be too optimistic for the ruling coalition, because the opposition is widely expected to block enactment of the bills, which still requires the endorsement of the upper chamber, even though it can effectively be enacted by the Lower House alone.
For the ruling coalition, the best timing for a general election would be after Japan hosts the Group of Eight summit in July in Hokkaido, Narita said.
But Fukuda faces more immediate hurdles in the Diet, where the government is attempting to extend the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s refueling mission in the Indian Ocean in support of antiterrorism operations in Afghanistan.
The DPJ has vowed to block the special 2001 law that authorizes the mission on the grounds that it has not been authorized by the United Nations and is thus unconstitutional. The law expires Nov. 1.
With time running short, Fukuda said last week the government is ready to submit a new bill for a replacement law during the current extraordinary Diet session to get the mission extended.
He also said he is willing to negotiate with the DPJ about the mission as well as other issues.
“We can’t avoid discussions with the DPJ, which now has the power in the Upper House. I am ready to talk with them,” Fukuda told a news conference soon after he was elected LDP president Sunday.
Fukuda also indicated that as a last resort the ruling coalition stands ready to override the Upper House if it rejects the antiterrorism law.
But some lawmakers in the ruling coalition have warned that the move could cost it public support. Overriding the Upper House at a time when the opposition camp is surging could be interpreted as ignoring the will of the public, which expressed itself clearly in July’s election.
Yasunori Sone, a professor of political science at Keio University’s graduate school of media and governance in Tokyo, said he foresees a tug of war between Fukuda and DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa, who is likely to spurn compromise talks on the antiterrorism law and other key issues in the Diet.
“The timing of the next general election may depend on how the public judges the tug of war in the Diet,” Sone said.