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The Diet opens a 150-day session Monday amid widespread speculation in Nagata-cho that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi may dissolve the House of Representatives and call a snap election sometime this year — possibly even during the session.

Koizumi has repeatedly denied the rumors, but his words are not being taken at face value. Lower House members, whose four-year terms end in June 2004, widely expect to have to contest a general election before the year is out.

Liberal Democratic Party politicians close to Koizumi, including Secretary General Taku Yamasaki, have suggested a Lower House election may be held just before the LDP presidential poll in September, when Koizumi’s term as party chief expires.

Such a move would be designed to suppress forces within the LDP trying to oust Koizumi. If the LDP came out ahead in a Lower House election, Koizumi’s position as party chief and prime minister would be substantially strengthened.

Yamasaki, with this in mind, has publicly said the Diet session should be extended beyond its June 18 close, only to be criticized by LDP heavyweight Hiromu Nonaka and other members of the party who oppose Koizumi’s stewardship.

Political analyst Hisayuki Miyake said the Diet session is almost certain to be extended: There will not be enough time to deliberate key pending legislation, including the emergency attack-response bills and the personal information protection bill, which will not be taken up until after the 81.79 trillion yen fiscal 2003 budget clears the Lower House in March.

The ruling coalition is also expected to avoid full-scale debate on sensitive legislation until after unified local elections are held in April.

However, Koizumi will not be able to extend the session to September because of anticipated opposition from within his party, Miyake said. “It would be too obvious, if he aims for a long extension, that he wants to call a snap election in September.”

Even if Koizumi calls an election, there is no guarantee the LDP will retain a comfortable majority in the Lower House, political analyst Minoru Morita said. The party currently holds 243 of the chamber’s 480 seats.

“One indicator (of how the LDP would fare) will be Koizumi’s popular approval rating after April, when the public will feel the burden of reduced pension benefits and increased medical cost-sharing under the fiscal 2003 budget,” Morita said.

Unlike his first 12 months in office, when he enjoyed sky-high popular support, Koizumi’s approval ratings in media polls have yo-yoed sharply over the past year.

“Depending on how the public judges Koizumi’s economic management after his two years in office in April, he may go downhill toward September and be forced to step down as prime minister,” Morita said.

Koizumi has made pulling the economy out of its doldrums his policy priority for the year. In his Jan. 6 news conference, his first of the year, he vowed to take “all available policy measures” to fight deflation, emphasizing the importance of the Bank of Japan’s monetary policy.

His remarks represent a prevailing desire in the ruling coalition to pressure the BOJ into adopting an inflation-targeting policy to stop prices from falling and guiding the yen lower to boost exports.

While the BOJ currently opposes any radical monetary easing, speculation is mounting that when BOJ Gov. Masaru Hayami’s five-year term expires in March, Koizumi will name a successor who will try to rewrite the central bank’s policy.

“The new governor should be someone who is committed to fighting deflation, and who can make the right decision on what policy is needed,” Koizumi said.

Opposition party lawmakers say they will grill Koizumi on his economic policy failures, since the economy has shown no signs of improvement while the prime minister tried to push his structural reforms, also to little effect.

“One of the problems is that the budget is not allocated effectively to create jobs and demand,” Yukio Edano, policy chief of the Democratic Party of Japan, told a news conference earlier this week.

Once the budget clears the Diet, the ruling coalition — the LDP, New Komeito and the New Conservative Party — hopes to focus on a set of war-contingency bills and legislation to protect personal information — issues that left unfinished in the regular session of 2002.

Last year, the opposition parties refused to deliberate the war-contingency bills, denouncing them as riddled with shortcomings and lacking provisions spelling out how imminent terrorist threats and armed vessels intruding into Japanese waters, such as North Korean spy ships, would be dealt with.

The coalition revised the bills last month, clarifying the situations in which the Self-Defense Forces would be deployed to respond to a military attack on Japan.

The DPJ believes war-contingency legislation is needed, but party officials would only say that they will come up with alternative proposals to legislation submitted by the government.

The bill to protect personal information failed to clear the last extraordinary Diet session in the face of fierce criticism from the opposition and the mass media, which branded the legislation a government attempt to curtail freedom of the press.

The ruling camp revised its bill in December by dropping all the “basic principles,” including requirements on all parties handling personal information to clarify the purpose of its use and to acquire information in “an appropriate manner.”

The requirements were seen as a major problem that could force journalists to disclose their news sources, instead of working as a check against government abuse of its access to private information, as its proponents have argued.

The government also hopes to submit a bill to revise the 1947 Fundamental Law of Education during the upcoming session.

But that revision will prompt opposition even within the ruling bloc, as New Komeito is hesitant about the idea of stipulating “patriotism” and “respect for Japanese tradition” in the legislation — clauses that critics say would guide Japanese education toward ethnocentrism, as was the case before the war.

If a U.S.-led attack on Iraq takes place, however, attention will be certain to shift to the government’s plans to enact a law to enable Japan to contribute to the postconflict reconstruction of Iraq. In that event, all other major bills will be forced to the sidelines.

One problem with the planned bill regarding Iraq is that it may not be passed by the time the conflict ends. “Once the attack begins, it will likely end in about a month or so,” a senior Foreign Ministry official said. “That may not be long enough to make a new law.”

Winning public support for such a bill is another hurdle, because an attack on Iraq is not receiving unqualified support in opinion polls. The deployment of SDF personnel for postconflict reconstruction — a probable key component of the bill — is also likely to face opposition in the legislature.

“Unlike the antiterrorism bill that came right after the shocking (Sept. 11, 2001) terrorist attacks in the United States, the bill pertaining to Iraq will have a hard time winning public support,” the official said. “The public may not be convinced that an attack on Iraq is necessary in the first place.”

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