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Confident LDP plays up victories as Diet session comes to a close

by Ayako Mie

Staff Writer

The 186th ordinary Diet session, which all but ended on Friday, was characterized by a confident and energetic Liberal Democratic Party as laying strong foundations for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s security-related political goals.

It was a fraught time for the opposition camp, which remained weakened by internal disputes and fractures.

In his policy speech in January, Abe said the focus of the 150-day Diet session would be the creation of a “virtuous economic cycle,” apparently aware that his government had benefited from an economic uplift and that it would be critical to keep the economy afloat if he was to proceed with his pet issues of collective self-defense and constitutional revision.

To follow that pledge through, the ruling camp, with a comfortable majority in both chambers, enacted Japan’s largest-ever budget in 2014, totaling more than ¥95 trillion. The budget was the third-fastest approved since the end of World War II.

It was the first time in three years that the budget law had been enacted before the new fiscal year, highlighting Abe’s hope that the ¥6 trillion allocated for public works projects would shore up the economy as early as possible and cushion the impact of the 3 percentage point tax hike in April.

The Diet enacted several key growth-strategy laws to keep up the momentum for “Abenomics,” Abe’s deflation-battling economic program.

For example, by revising the electricity business law, it will open up Japan’s ¥7.5 trillion residential electricity market to full competition for the first time in 63 years. The Diet also revised the income tax law to provide incentives for capital investment and enacted a law to establish a Japanese version of the U.S. National Institutes of Health to spur innovation in medical technology.

Yet critics said those laws and measures mostly cater to big corporations. In April, the government abolished a special corporate tax surcharge for reconstruction in Tohoku. This month, it said it would cut the corporate tax rate, without explaining how, as part of Abe’s growth strategy, which is slated to be approved next week.

“Corporate earnings are increasing and the stock market is booming, but it has not trickled down to us,” said political analyst Harumi Arima.

“It seems to me these are just giving Abe an excuse to proceed with what he really wants to do,” she said.

Since his first stint as prime minister in 2006, Abe’s political goal has been to bring about changes to systems created for Japan by the U.S. after World War II, with the ultimate goal of revising the Constitution.

Since he took office for his second stint in December 2012, the conservative prime minister has succeeded in reclaiming lost ground from his failed first attempt, recording such successes as establishing a Japanese version of the U.S. National Security Council and enacting the contentious special state secrecy law.

In the latest Diet session, Abe proceeded with his agenda to revamp Japan’s education board system, which dates from the U.S.-led postwar Occupation. The Diet enacted the law to give greater autonomy to local municipalities in education. Starting next April, local government heads will be able to appoint superintendents who can also head local education boards, and the chief of the local government will help to compile educational guidelines — changes that allow significant political intervention in education.

Abe also cleared one hurdle toward achieving constitutional revision. Having never amended the Constitution, Japan in 2007 enacted a law establishing a process for holding national referendums that would be required for any constitutional revision. By revising the national referendum law, which lowers the voting age from 20 at present to 18 four years after its enactment, the government has paved the way for it to tap younger voters when calling a referendum, which currently requires two-thirds of lawmakers in both chambers to approve.

In the meantime, Abe and his ruling camp have spent major political capital in the debate over upgrading Japan’s defense strategies, including allowing the nation to exercise its long-prohibited right to collective self-defense.

Even though the public is divided over this issue, critics say the lackluster opposition is unable to offer any alternative.

The best it could do to counter the ruling camp was to issue a censure motion against Environment Minister Nobuteru Ishihara after a much criticized gaffe Monday, in which he implied that cash handouts would be useful in solving the problem of finding places to store radioactive dirt. The motion was voted down Friday.

“There is no brake against the ruling camp now to stop Abe from pushing through his own political agenda that would please his conservative supporters,” said Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Sophia University. “There is virtually no opposition camp, as parties like Your Party or Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party) serve as satellite parties of the LDP, while the (main opposition) Democratic Party of Japan lacks unity.”

During this Diet session, Your Party, already weakened following a party split last December, lost further gravity when founder and former leader Yoshimi Watanabe became mired in a scandal over a loan he took out worth ¥800 million.

Nippon Ishin last month also split up into two groups centering on its former co-leaders — Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto and former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara — after the two failed to agree on a merger with Yui no To, which opposes Ishihara’s call to replace the Constitution.

Yui no To and the group led by Hashimoto are planning to merge by summer, aiming to bring on a realignment in the opposition camp before the unified local elections scheduled for next April. But it is unclear if it can create a powerful enough group to oppose the mighty ruling camp.

The Hashimoto group has 37 members and Eda’s Yui no To has 14 members. Combining them would only create a much smaller force than even the Democratic Party of Japan alone, which has 115 lawmakers in both chambers.

In the meantime, the DPJ, the biggest opposition, remains in disarray with leader Banri Kaieda unable to revamp and re-integrate the party following its devastating defeat in the 2012 election, which ousted the party from power. At the party leader debate earlier this month, Abe ridiculed Kaieda for being unable to reach a party consensus on the issue of collective self-defense, even though Kaieda had seen the question as a handy opportunity to attack Abe.

Some ranking party members, especially former Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara, are demanding that Kaieda step down before the party leader election scheduled for fall next year. Ten party members on Wednesday met with Kaieda and asked him to resign.