The Diet will convene an extraordinary session Friday to decide whether to extend the antiterrorism law by two years, but this may not go off without a hitch: Lawmakers appear to have already shifted their attention away from this issue to the House of Representatives election expected for November.

Extending the law, which allows the Self-Defense Forces to provide logistic support for U.S. antiterrorism operations in and around Afghanistan, is the main reason for the 36-day extraordinary session because it must be done before Nov. 1, when the law is set to expire.

Once the bill is approved by the Diet, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi will be free to dissolve the Lower House, a move he hinted would take place Oct. 10, and hold the election possibly on Nov. 9.

Adding momentum to the election mood are opinion polls published earlier this week by the nation’s major newspapers showing a surge in support for Koizumi’s newly formed Cabinet to the 60 percent range, a good portent for his Liberal Democratic Party.

If the prime minister misses this opportunity to call an election, he would have to wait until next summer to dissolve the lower chamber, because Diet deliberations on the fiscal 2004 budget are expected to take place in the first few months of next year, according to legislative sources.

The Democratic Party of Japan also sees benefits in a November election, DPJ sources said, pointing to the current surge in the largest opposition party’s public support level due to its merger with the Liberal Party.

“At this moment, there is no Lower House member who wants to delay the timing of the election. We want to get it over with as soon as possible,” a DPJ lawmaker said on condition of anonymity.

The July announcement of the two opposition parties’ plan to merge put the previously languishing voter support rate for the DPJ above 10 percent.

The merger accord was signed Wednesday, and the DPJ plans to hold a convention Oct. 5 to maintain its momentum and push ahead with its effort to take on the ruling coalition.

“We’d like to terminate the Koizumi Cabinet as soon as possible,” DPJ President Naoto Kan said when asked during a recent TV interview if he welcomes an early election. “Of course, we’ll squarely accept such a challenge (by the prime minister).”

But a smooth extension of the antiterrorism mandate during the Diet session may not be so easy, given the extremely tight political schedule and the opposition camp’s plan to contest the legislation ahead of the election, by capitalizing on mounting public criticism over Koizumi’s unconditional support for U.S.-led military operations.

To win Diet approval, the ruling camp aims to get the bill passed by the Lower House by Oct. 3 and by the Upper House by Oct. 10, according to the Diet sources.

“The schedule is rather tight,” LDP Diet affairs chief Hidenao Nakagawa admitted.

The ruling camp has reportedly discussed the timing for the Lower House dissolution, taking into consideration by-elections for the chamber Oct. 26 and the start of the official campaign period for them Oct. 14.

If the Lower House is dissolved, by-election campaigns already under way will have to be canceled, causing great turmoil for candidates and voters.

It would also waste billions of yen in taxpayer money that was spent on official preparations for the by-elections, the sources said.

“It’s theoretically possible (to dissolve the Lower House after the start of by-election campaigning), and there are no legal problems involved,” a senior LDP executive said. “But it’s not desirable.”

Hoping to block the bill, the opposition parties are meanwhile bracing for a Diet showdown. They have called for sufficient deliberation time on the bill, special budget committee sessions and one-on-one debates between opposition party leaders and Koizumi.

Such requests could stall the session if either side refuses to compromise and put both camps on a collision course, effectively pushing the election date past Nov. 9.

LDP Secretary General Shinzo Abe recently pointed out that the prime minister has the right to dissolve the Lower House even if he fails to do so before the start of the by-election campaigns.

“I don’t think it (the timing of the by-elections) would limit the prime minister’s right to dissolve the Lower House,” Abe said, adding that the final decision will be up to Koizumi.

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