National / Politics

Abe faces tall order in extra Diet session

Leader to get 53 days to pursue packed growth, defense agenda

by Ayako Mie

Staff Writer

After a nearly three-month recess, an extraordinary Diet session will open Tuesday, giving Prime Minister Shinzo Abe another chance to execute his growth strategies and bolster national security.

The 53-day session, slated to end Dec. 6, will be the first in which Abe’s ruling coalition has a majority in both chambers of the legislature, thanks to July’s sweeping victory in the House of Councilors election.

The coalition’s power will spare Abe the political wrangling that marred the end of the 150-day regular session earlier this year, when the opposition camp blocked talks and led a censure motion against him.

Still, Abe will be hard-pressed to achieve all his goals: The coalition and the opposition effectively only have about a month to deliberate a host of critical bills.

Abe also must unite his own party and junior coalition partner New Komeito on contentious issues, including a bill to protect state secrets, bills related to special economic zones, and a stimulus package to cushion the impact of the 3-point hike in the consumption tax next April.

Most controversial is the state secrets protection bill, which imposes harsher penalties on leakers and those seeking classified information. The bill is designed to complement another establishing the Japanese version of the National Security Council, another of Abe’s goals in the session. Abe believes both are necessary to forge a stronger relationship with the U.S. and its allies amid the changing security situation in Asia.

The process is hampered by the fact that some details have yet to be worked out between the LDP and New Komeito. Some fear the bill might infringe on the right to know and freedom of the press.

According to the outline of the bill, information gathered in the areas of defense, diplomacy, counterintelligence and counterterrorism would be designated as state secrets.

Currently, public servants who leak state secrets are subject to a maximum prison term of five years when the information released is related to national security. The bill would extend the maximum sentence to 10 years.

Japan is often criticized for a lack of transparency and poor access to information. Critics say the bill might worsen the situation by leaving what constitutes a state secret to the discretion of the government, including information related to atomic energy or defense policies.

“The public fears the complicated discussions of the bills to protect state secrets or collective self-defense will move ahead without much understanding. That’s why we need to discuss it carefully,” said New Komeito chief Natsuo Yamaguchi. The government is expected to specify the right to know in the bill in a concession to New Komeito.

The public seems to be divided over this issue as well. A public opinion poll this month by the Mainichi Shimbun showed 57 percent of the respondents said the bill is necessary, while 77 percent of the almost 97,000 public comments sought from Sept. 3 to Sept. 17 were against it.

The government is also discussing with the LDP ways to extend the five-year period for keeping information classified as secret. The initial proposal allows the classifying period to be renewed as many times as necessary, but a new proposal requires Cabinet approval if the information is to stay classified for more than 30 years.

“There is no clear rule as to when the government can extend the period,” said Nobutaka Machimura, the chief of the LDP panel overseeing this issue last month.

Meanwhile, the ruling coalition is mostly on the same page regarding a bill to spur the competitiveness of Japanese companies. This includes the introduction of economic incentives to bring capital investment to ¥70 trillion in three years.

But not everyone is convinced the effort will help spur economic growth and end the country’s long-standing deflationary trend.

“Governments before Abe hammered out similar deregulation strategies, but it is hard to tell the difference from the past ones,” said Akihiko Suzuki, general manager and chief economist at Mitsubishi UFJ Research and Consulting.

Another bill would create special economic zones much like those sought by former Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda of the Democratic Party of Japan. The zones are designed to deregulate land use or spur medical innovation to make Japanese cities more globally attractive to foreign companies that do business abroad.

Another bid by Abe to loosen the labor rules so workers within special economic zones can be laid off more easily is likely to be scaled backed to apply only to “highly skilled” workers, such as lawyers and those with master’s degrees.

Abe initially aimed to make it easier for companies to lay off workers across the board in the special zones, but this plan was opposed by the labor ministry, which is concerned that companies will use this as an opportunity to impose unfair contracts.

The opposition, however, will likely mount its biggest challenge to Abe over the ¥5 trillion stimulus package he unveiled earlier this month when announcing his decision to go ahead with the first stage of the sales tax.

“It is very wrong that only big companies get benefits. Most small-to-midsize enterprises don’t even pay corporate taxes, and benefits are limited,” said DPJ policy research chief Mitsuru Sakurai last week, referring to Abe’s plan to prematurely end a special corporate levy dedicated to funding Tohoku’s reconstruction from the March 2011 quake and tsunami in exchange for wage hikes.