The House of Councilors rejected on Friday a nonbinding censure motion against farm minister Tsutomu Takebe, but New Komeito’s decision to abstain from the vote underlined the flagging unity within the Liberal Democratic Party-led ruling coalition.

It is the first time that members of the ruling alliance have shown disunity in key votes since the triumvirate was formed in April 2000.

The motion was voted down 114 votes to 102, with the LDP and New Conservative Party making up the majority. Members of New Komeito, the third coalition partner, were absent from the vote, which took place at the Upper House plenary session.

When the motion was dismissed, Takebe deeply bowed in appreciation as 24 members of New Komeito entered the chamber to jeers and boos from the opposition.

The opposition camp criticized Takebe for mishandling a series of problems in the wake of the outbreak of mad cow disease in September, and also charged that he had failed to take sufficient steps to deal with a spate of subsequent food-mislabeling scandals.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi emphasized that New Komeito’s abstention would not affect the relationship among the coalition.

“New Komeito has its own standpoint,” Koizumi said after the vote. “Such (different) action happens, since we are members of different parties.”

Tetsuzo Fuyushiba, New Komeito secretary general, said his party had boycotted the vote because they believe Takebe should take responsibility for the farm ministry’s poor handling of the mad cow outbreak.

“We said what we had to say,” Fuyushiba said. “We carefully considered our position as a member of the coalition and decided to absent ourselves from the voting.”

New Komeito’s frustration with Koizumi is apparent, however.

“The current atmosphere does not allow us to walk cheerfully along with Mr. Koizumi, shoulder to shoulder,” a senior New Komeito member of the Upper House said Thursday at an executive meeting.

Another member said, “(Koizumi) does not realize how big our influence is (within the alliance).”

Opposition leaders strongly criticized Koizumi and the ruling bloc for dismissing the motion.

Yukio Hatoyama, leader of the Democratic Party of Japan, said, “Koizumi gave priority to his (political) life over the lives of people.”

Hatoyama further criticized New Komeito leader Takenori Kanzaki’s inconsistent position, pointing out that Kanzaki had called for Takebe’s resignation only to boycott the censure motion vote.

“The ruling parties bear a grave responsibility for rejecting the motion,” said Mizuho Fukushima, secretary general of the Social Democratic Party. “Koizumi should not persist in his principle to keep the same Cabinet members throughout his administration.”

The tug of war over Takebe’s fate, which has increased tensions within the ruling camp, began Tuesday, when a government panel released a report admitting the farm ministry had made a “grave blunder” that led to the outbreak of mad cow disease last fall.

The ministry is accused of failing to take proper steps in the mid-1990s to halt the use of meat-and-bone meal, a protein-based animal feed considered the likely cause of the disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

Shortly after the report was made public, New Komeito chief Kanzaki urged Takebe to step down from his post to take responsibility for the outbreak.

Calls for Takebe’s resignation also increased within the LDP, especially from senior LDP members apparently hoping for a Cabinet reshuffle and a chance to increase their say in the administration.

Hiromu Nonaka, former secretary general of the LDP, warned that keeping Takebe in his post could incur criticism from voters in upcoming elections. “Without a gesture that can be understood from the general public’s viewpoint, this issue will negatively affect the (Kyoto gubernatorial) election (on Sunday),” he said earlier this week.

Despite the pressure, Koizumi refused to sack Takebe, apparently considering it unwise to give the impression that he had given in to opponents within the ruling coalition. Takebe is a member of an LDP faction led by Secretary General Taku Yamasaki, Koizumi’s longtime ally.

Koizumi’s reaction has put New Komeito in an awkward position.

Supporting the opposition-sponsored motion would have intensified the friction with Koizumi to the point where the party could have been pushed to leave the coalition. Voting against, however, would have incurred criticism for being inconsistent.

New Komeito was strongly censured by its supporters when it, along with the two other coalition members, rejected an opposition motion to vote on a resolution urging scandal-tainted former LDP lawmaker Muneo Suzuki to resign from the Diet.

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