Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda appears fated to face some challenging times ahead as the 150-day ordinary Diet session opens Friday, only three days after an extraordinary session drew to a close.
Passing legislation has become tough for the Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito ruling bloc since the House of Councilors election last July, when the opposition camp scored a major triumph and took control of the chamber.
Fukuda learned this the hard way when he tried to enact the antiterrorism law — and twice had to extend the extraordinary session to do so. But it could be even harder this time around as the issues coming up for debate will directly affect voters’ lives.
The gasoline and other auto-related taxes will be at the top of the agenda, and the prime minister is also determined to pass the fiscal 2008 budget and its related laws by the end of March.
The government plans to extend the current tax rates on gasoline, roads and motor vehicle tonnage for another 10 years after they expire in March. The auto-related taxes were increased by 1.2 to 2.5 times in the 1970s to pay for road construction across Japan. Although they were adopted on a temporary basis, the higher rates have been in place ever since.
But the Democratic Party of Japan is against continuing these special taxes, arguing that abolishing the gasoline tax would lower prices at the pump by ¥25 a liter. The largest opposition party also wants the revenue from these taxes to be used for many other nonroad-related purposes and will specifically propose that the gasoline tax be used to fight the effects of greenhouse gases.
A recent Kyodo News poll found that 72.2 percent of respondents were against the government’s plan to maintain the special road-related taxes. Only 21.4 percent favored the plan.
“When the point at issue becomes clear, I believe we should ask the public for their position,” DPJ deputy chief Naoto Kan said at a news conference last week, referring to the party’s call for a general election.
March is also the proposed deadline for the government to match the 50 million unidentified pension premium payment records based on a plan set up in July by the Cabinet of Fukuda’s predecessor, Shinzo Abe.
This was an LDP campaign pledge in the Upper House election, but the Social Insurance Agency admitted in late December it was having difficulty identifying some 19.75 million of the accounts, leaving a slim chance that all 50 million records will be matched by the deadline.
The DPJ, which uncovered the SIA’s mishandling of the pension records, will no doubt use the missed deadline as another opportunity to criticize the government as well as Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Yoichi Masuzoe, who said he would “stake his political life” on matching the records of “the very last person to the very last yen.”
Another task is nominating the next governor of the Bank of Japan before the five-year term of the current central bank chief, Toshihiko Fukui, ends on March 19. Appointing a BOJ governor requires the approval of both Diet chambers.
In November, the Upper House voted down three government panel members among many others who were reappointed. The various parties in the opposition camp said they were against allowing retired high-ranking public officials to oversee the ministries they once worked for. It was the first time in 56 years that such nominations were rejected, and the government was forced to come up with new nominees.
With some of the names getting bandied about for the next BOJ chief including former bureaucrats, including BOJ Deputy Gov. Toshiro Muto, who was a top official in the Finance Ministry, finding someone who both chambers can agree on is likely to require some effort.
Longer-term issues that could also invite heated debate include introduction of a permanent law to allow overseas deployments of the Self-Defense Forces so that a special law does not have to be enacted each time, such as when SDF personnel were sent to Iraq for reconstruction work.
Whether such a bill will be submitted hasn’t been decided, but several LDP executives have hinted at the need to start the discussion while pushing for reform of the scandal-tainted Defense Ministry.
Fukuda has stated that he does not intend to dissolve the Lower House before the Group of Eight summit is held this July in Hokkaido. But if the ruling bloc tries to ram through the road-tax bill or other contentious legislation, he may be forced to dissolve the chamber before the Diet session ends June 15, political observers say.
With the Diet divided, the ruling bloc could take advantage of its two-thirds majority in the powerful Lower House, as seen in the case of enacting the special antiterrorism law that allowed the Maritime Self-Defense Force to resume its refueling mission in the Indian Ocean.
The Constitution allows for a bill to be sent back to the Lower House if rejected by the Upper House or if the bill has not been voted on within 60 days after being presented to the upper chamber. When this happens, the law can be enacted by a two-thirds majority in the lower chamber.
But Yasunori Sone, a political science professor at Keio University in Tokyo, noted the ruling bloc will have more difficulty in taking advantage of the two-thirds majority this time. “If they use this, they will invite public criticism,” he said.
At the same time, however, even if the DPJ-led Upper House passes a censure motion against the prime minister for resorting to the two-thirds majority in a bid to pressure him into dissolving the Lower House, the motion would be nonbinding, unlike a vote of no-confidence in the lower chamber, Sone said.
“The LDP, New Komeito and the DPJ will all be forced to make important political decisions as they deal with the bills,” he said.