Prime Minister Naoto Kan kicked off the year by sacking his right-hand man, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku, and appointing a one-time critic of him in Kaoru Yosano to the Cabinet, reaching out to the opposition to gain support for the fiscal 2011 budget.
But his moves appear to have backfired, with opposition parties ready to jump on Kan over the controversial appointment of the former Liberal Democratic Party heavyweight as state minister in charge of economic and fiscal policy.
“We will grill him in the Diet,” Ichita Yamamoto, the LDP’s policy chief in the Upper House caucus, said on Jan. 15, adding that he personally favors submitting a nonbinding censure motion against Yosano in the upper chamber.
Analysts agree Yosano, a veteran lawmaker versed in pension and tax reform, has the requisite expertise to fill the post, but his appointment is unlikely to smooth deliberations in the Diet, which convened Monday.
“Kan is simply giving the opposition more material to attack,” said Sadafumi Kawato, professor of political science at the University of Tokyo.
Kan initially appointed Yosano, who left the LDP last April to form the tiny opposition force Tachiagare Nippon (Sunrise Party of Japan), to spearhead nonpartisan discussions on pension and tax reform, including a contentious consumption tax hike.
But his recruitment by the DPJ-led government has generated ill will within the LDP. Due to the hostile response, Yosano is expected to focus on drafting a government proposal on reforms by June and leave negotiations with the opposition in the hands of Koichiro Genba, state minister in charge of national policy.
The opposition camp also plans to attack Yosano as a hypocrite, in light of his past criticism of the DPJ, even when he was with Tachiagare Nippon, which he left earlier this month.
“I will respond by fulfilling the duty I was given,” Yosano responded Jan. 18.
Although Kan may face pressure over Yosano at the beginning of the Diet session, the opposition is expected to recycle it further around March, when the budget and related bills will be voted on in the Diet, analysts said.
“The opposition camp holds the initiative in the divided Diet,” said Naoto Nonaka, a political science professor at Gakushuin University.
He added that Kan’s administration may be forced to accept the opposition camp’s demands to revise the budget in order for it to clear the Diet, as the prime minister’s attempt to reach out to Tachiagare Nippon at the end of last year ended in failure.
Well aware of its vulnerable position, DPJ Secretary General Katsuya Okada has said he is ready to revise the budget if necessary.
An opposition-initiated revision, however, could undermine key policies of the Kan administration, including raising the monthly child allowance to ¥20,000 for children under age 3.
“Child allowances, free high school tuition and income compensation for farmers are among those we believe are ineffective policies,” LDP President Sadakazu Tanigaki said on a TV program earlier this month. The budget itself is expected to clear the Diet even if the Upper House votes it down because the decision of the more powerful Lower House, in which the DPJ-led coalition has a majority, holds sway.
But this condition does not apply to the budget-related bills necessary to implement the budget. If those bills are voted down in the opposition-controlled upper chamber, they will need to be voted on again in the Lower House and passed with a two-thirds majority, or 319 votes or more, to override the Upper House’s decision.
In the lower chamber, the DPJ and coalition partner Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party) have 311 seats plus those of two independents close to the DPJ. The ruling coalition is therefore six short of the threshold.
If the ruling coalition can regain the support of the Social Democratic Party, a former coalition partner, it would gain the six seats it needs. Negotiations between the two sides failed in December but they agreed to continue talks.
What complicates the matter further is the possibility that former DPJ President Ichiro Ozawa may either bolt from the party or be kicked out after his mandatory indictment takes place over a political funds scandal, taking some of his supporters and their votes along with him.
If the SDP refuses to cooperate or Ozawa and his supporters leave the party, the ruling bloc will need to rely on the backing of other opposition parties, including the LDP.
Nonaka of Gakushuin University said Kan may decide to dissolve the Lower House and call a snap election if the opposition pushes too hard for revisions to the budget.
“If he swallows all of the opposition demands, the budget will pass. But if he feels he is being asked to compromise too much, he may choose to dissolve the lower chamber,” Nonaka said.
But the University of Tokyo’s Kawato disagreed, saying that dissolving the Lower House at this point is the last thing the prime minister would want to do.
“If Kan cannot resolve Diet gridlock, calls would rise from the DPJ to replace him,” he said, pointing out that about half the DPJ’s members voted for Ozawa in September’s DPJ presidential election.
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