Noda to tweak Cabinet to win tax hike votes

Defense, land ministers top list of four who might be sacked

by Natsuko Fukue

Staff Writer

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said Sunday he will reshuffle his Cabinet in a bid to win opposition support for his administration’s unpopular tax hike bill.

Although Noda refused to give any specifics on the shakeup, expected Monday, Defense Minister Naoki Tanaka and land minister Takeshi Maeda, who were censured by the opposition-controlled Upper House in April, are likely to face the ax.

Other names being floated are agriculture and justice chiefs Michihiko Kano and Toshio Ogawa, respectively.

Kano’s standing has been shaken by suspicions he may have passed classified documents to a Chinese diplomat suspected of espionage, a charge he denied Saturday.

Ogawa drew flak when he was spotted checking a horse racing website before a Diet debate in February when Noda faced off with opposition leaders.

Noda cemented his decision to proceed with the partial reshuffle after a meeting with Ichiro Ozawa on Sunday morning in which he once again failed to persuade the former Democratic Party of Japan leader to back a bill to double the 5 percent sales tax by 2015 to cover snowballing social security expenses.

It was Noda’s second meeting since Wednesday with Ozawa, who heads the DPJ’s largest faction, with 120 members.

“I couldn’t win his support, but I told him that I will proceed with talks” with the opposition parties on social security and tax reform bills, Noda said after their hourlong meeting at DPJ headquarters.

Ozawa told reporters afterwards that he told the prime minister his opposition to the tax bill had not weakened.

“There are things that need to be taken care of before raising the tax,” Ozawa said.

Despite his opposition to Noda, Ozawa told reporters that he has “no intention” of leaving the DPJ and is willing to meet again with the prime minister if requested.

Time is short for Noda, who wants to pass the tax bill before the Diet closes on June 21. He is pushing for the Lower House to vote on the bill around June 15 before he flies to Mexico for the Group of 20 summit on June 18.

Faced with the prospect that many in his own party will vote against the bill, Noda is stepping up efforts to woo the opposition’s leader, the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, by agreeing to reshuffle the Cabinet.

“I have said that I’ll risk my political career (on passage of the bill). To lay the groundwork for a vote on the bill in the Lower House, we need to hold fruitful discussions with the opposition leader, the LDP,” Noda said.

In an appearance on an NHK talk show Sunday, LDP President Sadakazu Tanigaki welcomed Noda’s decision. “It has to be done as soon as possible,” Tanigaki said, adding that he was willing to meet with Noda.

Opposition backing is crucial. With or without Ozawa’s support, the opposition has the numbers to block the legislation in the Upper House.

However, the LDP appears to have backed off its insistence that Noda dissolve the lower chamber to gain its support.

On a TV program Friday, LDP Secretary General Nobuteru Ishihara said: “The prime minister will never say (he will call for a snap election). All we can do is to anticipate each other’s moves.”

Ishihara, however, said the LDP wants Noda to fix a time frame for voting on the bill and has asked DPJ Secretary General Azuma Koshiishi for a schedule as a condition of support.

The LDP’s approach could continue to create problems for the DPJ. Koshiishi, who attended the meeting with Noda and Ozawa on Sunday, is reluctant to push for a vote on the tax hike, concerned that cooperating with the LDP may lead to dissolution of the Lower House.

It is widely believed that Ozawa also wants to avoid a snap election. Many of the lawmakers in his group are newcomers, and are vulnerable to being voted out by an electorate angry about the envisioned tax hike.

Some speculate Ozawa actually wants to delay a vote until after the DPJ presidential election in September so that he, or an ally, can run for the top spot on the issue of whether party members support a tax hike.