Noda team faces rocky Diet session

Opposition only wants election; even DPJ ranks slam tax hike


Staff Writer

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda says his partially reshuffled Cabinet is the best lineup ever, but it will need to be to face the turbulence expected in the Diet session that started Tuesday.

Noda’s most challenging task will be the push by his Democratic Party of Japan-led government to pass social security reform and double the 5 percent consumption tax in a Diet in which an uncooperative opposition camp controls the Upper House and strong voices continue within the DPJ against raising the sales levy.

Noda told the DPJ’s annual convention a week ago he “will pursue the reforms at any cost.”

The national debt is ballooning, reaching 212.7 percent of GDP in 2011, according to the Finance Ministry, and snowballing social security costs covering medical and nursing care services for the rapidly aging population are only worsening the problem.

“There is no future for Japan” without reforms, Noda said.

Analysts, however, said the prime minister can expect continued deadlock in the Diet.

“Noda faces a crisis,” said political commentator Minoru Morita. “It’s even possible he’ll be pushed into a corner and forced to dissolve the Lower House for an election” before the administration can achieve any reforms.

The DPJ already failed to persuade the major opposition parties — the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito — to agree to sit down and discuss the planned reforms. Even though the LDP has endorsed raising the consumption tax, its first goal is to have the Diet dissolved for an election, and to this end has sniped at the ruling bloc for not living up to its 2009 election campaign pledge to keep the levy at 5 percent.

Both the LDP and New Komeito snubbed Noda’s request on Jan. 19 to join preliminary reform discussions.

LDP Secretary General Nobuteru Ishihara said at the time his party will only deliberate on set reform bills in the Lower House after Noda’s Cabinet approves the legislation beforehand.

New Komeito has also denounced the DPJ for breaching its 2009 pledge to keep the comsumption tax at 5 percent. Only the Social Democratic Party and Tachiagare Nippon (Sunrise Party of Japan) have said they will participate in preliminary reform discussions. The DPJ needs opposition support if he’s going to get his bills through the Upper House.

Thus Noda “will have to carry out a balancing act” while he tries to compromise with and gain the cooperation of the opposition, said Yasuharu Ishizawa, a professor of media and politics at Gakushuin Women’s College. “His ability to win over the opposition will be crucial” to the administration’s surviving the Diet session, he said.

But this situation should not be interpreted as indicating the opposition has the advantage, experts said.

There is division within the LDP’s ranks as well. Leaders of the party’s prefectural chapters on Saturday in Tokyo criticized the leadership’s refusal to engage in reform talks with the ruling bloc and its sole goal of pressing for a Lower House election. This outburst came a day before the party’s annual convention.

Former LDP policy chief Shigeru Ishiba said the party should cooperate with the DPJ.

“We should consider more seriously about how the markets overseas are looking at us. We have no time to put party interests first,” he said on a BS Asahi TV program aired Friday.

Ishizawa of Gakushuin Women’s College criticized the LDP’s continued confrontational approach against the ruling camp.

“They (LDP leaders) say no to everything just because they’re an opposition party,” he said. “I doubt this attitude will be accepted by the public.”

Noda’s government on Jan. 6 took direct action and approved a draft plan to raise the consumption tax to 8 percent in April 2014 and 10 percent in October 2015, despite strong opposition from DPJ members, many of whom are allied with scandal-ridden party kingpin Ichiro Ozawa. Noda wants the overall reform bill submitted to the Diet in March.

His unshakable quest for a tax hike spurred nine DPJ members to leave the party at the end of 2011 and form Kizuna, a new group that taps the March 11 buzzword meaning bonding.

The continued division within the DPJ will also handicap Noda, commentator Morita said. “Without reuniting the party, Noda can’t push the reforms.”

If Noda fails to win over the detractors within his ranks, more will leave the party, according to Morita. “It will make Noda’s administration weaker. The key is whether he can reunite the DPJ members.”

Noda meanwhile has many other key bills that must clear the Diet during the 150-day session.

He vowed at the party’s annual convention that the administration will seek to trim the number of Lower House seats by 80 from 480 and cut salaries for national civil servants by 7.8 percent to reduce public expenses. Cutting the number of lawmakers is part of the party’s 2009 campaign platform.

DPJ Diet affairs chief Koriki Jojima said on an NHK program Sunday that the seat-reduction goal is not set in stone and the ruling bloc “will have to do its best to reach an agreement” with the opposition. But chances for this are dim, as the LDP and New Komeito oppose the plan.

The administration also hopes by March to pass a fourth extra budget to finance the Tohoku region’s reconstruction and the ¥90 trillion-plus annual budget for fiscal 2012.

Finance Minister Jun Azumi admitted during a speech at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan on Jan. 18 that passage of the fiscal 2012 budget and its related bills will be “a hurdle.”

This is because the opposition has already vowed not to support a special bill to issue the deficit-covering government bonds deemed necessary to finance about 40 percent of the budget for the fiscal year. Failure to pass the special bill could lead to a shutdown in social welfare services and local government operations.

The DPJ-led administration also has key bills left over from last year, including one for postal system reform and another to amend the Workers Dispatch Law to protect temporary workers.

Other vital legislation includes a bill to set up a nuclear safety agency under the Environment Ministry and a special bill to help revitalize Fukushima Prefecture as it struggles with the nuclear crisis.

In all, the Noda government plans to submit 81 bills to the Diet, and he hopes to gain as much cooperation from the opposition as possible.

Deliberations will be tough. For example, newly appointed Defense Minister Naoki Tanaka will face flak from the opposition because of his apparent lack of experience in defense issues.

His predecessor, Yasuo Ichikawa, was censured by the opposition over various gaffes involving him and people under him. Ichikawa particularly drew fire for admitting he didn’t know “the specific details” about the 1995 rape of a schoolgirl in Okinawa by three U.S. servicemen, and called himself “an amateur” on security issues.

A former deputy meanwhile riled Okinawa over remarks made in connection with the government’s contentious plan to relocate U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within Okinawa to a site in Nago.

Noda apparently chose Tanaka not for his experience in security matters but in hopes of uniting the party because of his close ties to Ozawa.

Tanaka has already upset Okinawa residents by saying he wants to start construction of the Nago relocation site by the end of the year, a comment he was forced to retract.

“Tanaka may not become Noda’s Achilles’ heel, but the appointment will definitely give him a disadvantage in the Diet session,” Ishizawa said.