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More hurdles in store for Noda

by Masami Ito and Natsuko Fukue

Staff Writers

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda managed to get the Lower House to pass the contentious tax hike bill, but his troubles are far from over, as demonstrated by the no votes cast by the Democratic Party of Japan’s kingpin, Ichiro Ozawa, and more than 50 of his followers.

Although Ozawa, when speaking to his allies Tuesday, apparently stepped back from his threat to immediately leave the DPJ and form a breakaway party, it is still unclear what his camp plans to do next.

With such uncertainty surrounding the DPJ, the prime minister, whose support rate is also dropping, will no doubt have an even harder time trying to lead and get other bills passed in the divided Diet, especially in the months until Sept. 8, when the extended legislative session is scheduled to end.

Tomoaki Iwai, a political science professor at Nihon University, said Noda’s leadership is sure to wane after Tuesday and the prime minister will have no alternative except to turn to the Liberal Demorcatic Party, the main opposition force, for assistance.

“The DPJ will lose its presence as a ruling party and will have no choice but to coexist with the LDP,” said Iwai. “The policymaking process in the Diet will likely change and the DPJ and the LDP may have to establish a new system with a mentality similar to a grand coalition.”

LDP President Sadakazu Tanigaki, during a news conference Monday, dismissed the idea of forming a grand coalition with the DPJ but expressed willingness to cooperate in some ways, depending on the policies in question.

“I am negative (toward a grand coalition). I think it is pointless to join hands with a party that has too many heads and does not know which direction it is headed,” Tanigaki said. “It is more realistic to cooperate partially in certain areas.”

Aside from the tax hike, which is expected to clear the Upper House with the vote from the DPJ as well as the LDP and New Komeito, the Noda administration also needs to enact a deficit-covering bonds bill, which covers about 40 percent of the budget for fiscal 2012 and is necessary to execute the budget.

The LDP is demanding that Noda dissolve the Lower House soon and call a snap election. The current members’ terms end in August 2013.

The LDP plans to back the bond bill in return for Noda dissolving the lower chamber.

Noda has said he will not call an election until he has done everything he can, including get the tax increase passed, but has been vague beyond that goal.

“There will be deliberations on the (tax hike) bill in the Upper House, too. I have many other things I need to do and I will seek the public’s judgement once everything is done,” Noda said Monday during a Lower House committee meeting.

But it is still uncertain if he can forestall an election before the votes on his other legislative goals, given the turbulence he faces in the Diet.

If Ozawa decides to leave the DPJ and form a new party in the near future with more than 50 members, it will be able to submit a no-confidence motion against Cabinet members without the help of other parties. Lower House regulations require the support of at least 51 lawmakers to submit a no-confidence motion.

If the motion is approved with the support of the opposition parties, Noda will have to call an election or his Cabinet must resign en mass.

Kazuhisa Kawakami, a professor of political science at Meiji Gakuin University, said, however, that most of Ozawa’s loyalists would suffer “a fatal blow” in an election and the don’s political clout will continue to weaken.

Many Ozawa followers are freshmen lawmakers with weak re-election prospects and their strategy has been to solicit public support by voicing opposition to the DPJ’s two key goals — doubling the consumption tax to 10 percent and reactivating stalled nuclear reactors.

“There is no turning back for Ozawa . . . he has no choice but to leave the DPJ. But the public is not that naive and forming a new party won’t help him,” Kawakami predicted. “He may try and reach out to other popular people, like Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto or Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, but no one wants to join hands with poison.”

Kawakami also said if Ozawa and his loyalists leave the DPJ, it could be positive for Noda later.

“Without the Ozawa group, Noda will no longer have to expend his energy on dealing with the internal strife between the anti-Ozawa clan and the Ozawa loyalists,” Kawakami said. “Noda will be able to spend time focusing on rebuilding the DPJ.”

Meanwhile, experts praised Noda’s efforts to raise the consumption tax, as past leaders preferred to put it aside.

LDP Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita’s administration introduced the consumption tax in 1989, setting the rate at 3 percent. It was raised to 5 percent by an LDP administration in 1997. No matter how unpopular, however, experts say the latest hike is inevitable to deal with an aging society and the swelling national debt, and they praised Noda for holding his course.