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Government enacts record-high budget, damping opposition efforts to keep spotlight on school land scandal

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Staff Writer

With Monday’s passage of the record-high budget for fiscal 2017, the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is headed for the latter half of the year’s ordinary Diet session that, in all likelihood, promises a further war of words with opposition parties over the ongoing scandal involving a shady land deal.

The Upper House plenary session approved the ¥97.45 trillion budget that highlighted an increase in defense spending — a record ¥5.13 trillion — reflecting Abe’s beefed-up effort to counter China’s maritime assertiveness and North Korea’s missile launches. Roughly a third of the total expenditure, or ¥32.47 trillion, is earmarked for social security costs, including pensions and medical expenses.

The enactment of the budget will bring to a halt deliberation at budget committees — venues used by opposition forces to grill Abe and nationalist Osaka school operator Yasunori Kagoike over a heavily discounted land deal that has raised allegations of influence-peddling.

As budget committees are practically the only place where Abe engages in spontaneous televised exchanges with his political foes, the end of the deliberations at the panels represents “a significant loss of opportunity for the opposition to publicly grill him,” Norihiko Narita, a political science professor at Surugadai University in Saitama Prefecture, said.

With the budget’s passage, “Abe and the (ruling) Liberal Democratic Party are surely now feeling like their job is over,” he said.

Hakubun Shimomura, vice secretary-general of the LDP, expressed hope that the budget’s enactment will bring some closure to the ongoing political wrangling over the scandal, which has marred the popularity of Abe’s administration.

“This ordinary Diet session is full of important bills to discuss and it’s time for us to move on to the next stage,” Shimomura is quoted by domestic media as saying on Sunday. Among these bills is a state-backed bill allowing crackdowns on groups that conspire to engage in serious criminal activity.

Despite a wrap-up of the budget committee deliberations, debate over the land scandal involving ultra-nationalist school firm Moritomo Gakuen, however, will likely be carried over at a hodgepodge of less prominent Diet committees, including those on Cabinet matters and financial affairs.

The opposition could try to pursue the matter at smaller panels, but, unlike budget committees, discussions at these venues are not televised nationally. Coupled with the fact that Abe is rarely summoned to speak at those committees in the first place, this means opposition parties will be hard-pressed to keep the issue in the spotlight, Narita said.

“The question is now whether the opposition can stay aggressive enough not to let the momentum die off, and dig up a further piece of scandal that keeps the public interested,” Narita said.

The main opposition Democratic Party, for its part, is in no mood to afford the ruling party a chance to move on with a clean slate, adamant it will further pursue the Moritomo Gakuen saga.

Speaking to reporters in Niigata Prefecture on Sunday, DP Secretary-General Yoshihiko Noda made it clear that his party has no intention of letting go of the matter just yet.

“In order to achieve a true breakthrough, it is imperative that all persons involved be summoned to the Diet as sworn witnesses — and that includes Ms. Abe,” Noda said in a video clip uploaded by the party.

He was referring to first lady Akie Abe, whose secretary is said to have negotiated on her behalf — at the request of Kagoike — with the Finance Ministry in 2015 to get the school principal a special deal for his land lease. Opposition parties say that if Saeko Tani, the secretary, made inquiries to the ministry in the place of someone as influential as the first lady, it could be interpreted as pointing to Akie Abe’s involvement in the land deal.

The Moritomo Gakuen saga has dominated domestic headlines for weeks now and support rates have fallen for Abe’s Cabinet. But most opinion polls show that despite the setback, the administration’s popularity remains higher than 50 percent — 52.4 percent, 56 percent and 62 percent, according to recent surveys by Kyodo News, Yomiuri Shimbun and the Nikkei business daily/TV Tokyo, respectively.

Kazuhisa Kawakami, a professor of political science at the International University of Health and Welfare, attributed these results partly to voter distrust of Kagoike, who came under fire for filing three different estimates for construction costs for the planned elementary school. But more fundamentally, the administration’s positive approval ratings may also reflect the lack of a viable alternative to Abe and the LDP.

The Democratic Party, the main opposition force, struggles with a perpetually lackluster approval rating of around eight percent.

“I think there is this innate fear among the public that should the Abe government collapse, few can exert stronger leadership than Abe in dealing with issues including Trump, Putin and an increasingly uncontrollable North Korea,” Kawakami said.