DPJ could use electoral reform bills to postpone calling general election

Kyodo

With Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda finally getting legislation to hike the sales tax passed by the Diet after promising opposition parties he would call a snap vote “soon,” lawmakers have started to focus on bills to reform the electoral system.

The issue is seen as urgent since the Supreme Court ruled in March 2011 that the vote-value disparity was “in a state of unconstitutionality” in some districts during the August 2009 general election, and urged lawmakers to finally fix the problem.

Although the Liberal Democratic Party is calling on Noda to dissolve the Lower House during the current Diet session that runs through Sept 8., analysts say this may not happen until next year because many executives in the ruling Democratic Party of Japan hope to avoid a swift dissolution, fearing they could lose the ensuing election.

“It is obvious that Lower House electoral reform legislation will be used as a tool for political maneuvering” over the timing of the next election, political analyst Norio Toyoshima said.

The ruling party is deeply unpopular with the electorate at present and support ratings for Noda’s Cabinet are hovering below 30 percent. The main source of discontent is believed Noda’s deeply unpopular drive to double the consumption tax to 10 percent by 2015, as well as his administration’s contentious OK for Kansai Electric Power Co. to restart two reactors at its Oi nuclear plant in Fukui Prefecture.

Noda also has said the court’s ruling does not limit his authority as prime minister to dissolve the chamber and call an election whenever he chooses, although a vote must take place no later than next August, when the current Lower House members’ terms expire.

The maneuvering to avoid an early election has already begun.

The prime minister “is not in a situation to dissolve” the Lower House, DPJ Secretary General Azuma Koshiishi told reporters Aug. 8. “Do you think he can do so while (the electoral system) remains in a state of unconstitutionality?”

“A dissolution (of the Lower House) is unlikely” before the chamber’s electoral system is reformed, DPJ Diet affairs chief Koriki Jojima told reporters the following day.

Meanwhile, other DPJ lawmakers have urged Noda, who also serves as the party’s president, to reform the electoral system before calling a poll on the grounds that the results could be ruled invalid otherwise.

Even if the ruling and opposition camps agree on electoral reform bills during the current session, it would take at least a few months to inform the public of the amendments.

“I (thus) believe a general election cannot be held before November,” one lawmaker declared.

“Koshiishi might continue to block an agreement on electoral reform with opposition parties to prevent Noda from calling a general election,” analyst Toyoshima said.

But not all pundits accept this scenario.

“That’s not how things will work out,” one LDP lawmaker said.

If Noda fails to dissolve the lower chamber by the end of August, the LDP may submit a censure motion against his Cabinet to the opposition-controlled Upper House, the top opposition party’s lawmakers said.

Though the motion would be nonbinding, it could still have a significant impact: In the past, opposition parties have boycotted Diet deliberations after such motions have been approved, forcing censured ministers to be removed from their posts, although no prime minister has stepped down.

On Aug. 8, Noda and the leaders of the LDP and its main opposition partner, New Komeito, agreed to pass the sales tax hike and social security reform bills through the Diet in exchange Noda holding a general election “soon.”

While the relevant legislation cleared the House of Councilors on Aug. 10 with the support of the LDP and New Komeito, the wrangling over Noda’s vague wording is intensifying and turning into a new source of friction between the two sides.

At the same time, speculation is rife that Noda and LDP President Sadakazu Tanigaki have already reached an agreement on the timing of the Lower House’s dissolution.

Still, everything depends on the outcomes of presidential elections both parties are scheduled to hold next month.

Noda’s chances of remaining at the helm of the DPJ are considered uncertain, as some of its members have indicated they may try to field a more populist candidate for the Sept. 21 poll if a general election is around the corner.

Koshiishi said Aug. 9 that in the unlikely event that Noda and Tanigaki — who is expected to stand for re-election in the LDP’s presidential election in September — are both replaced, any deal they may have struck on the Lower House’s dissolution would become invalid.