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More in LDP call for surge in public works after disasters, but some see election ploy

JIJI, Kyodo

An increasing number of Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers are calling for boosting Japan’s resistance to disasters by increasing public works projects to improve infrastructure.

They hope to see steady growth in public works spending in light of the fatal earthquake in Osaka last month and the deadly floods in western Japan, but apparently to draw support from the construction industry in next year’s Upper House election, sources familiar with the matter said.

According to the National Police Agency, the death toll from the floods rose to 219 in 14 prefectures on Monday, while a Kyodo News tally showed 21 people were still missing in five prefectures.

While the lawmakers intend to have the government earmark the funds under the fiscal 2018 supplementary budget, there are concerns that more public works spending will just exacerbate the nation’s deteriorating fiscal health.

Because disasters can happen anywhere in the country, now is the time to consider how to cope with the situation, Wataru Takeshita, chairman of the LDP’s decision-making General Council, said at a meeting in the city of Niigata on Saturday.

At a news conference last Tuesday, LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai said, “Priority needs to be placed on taking full-fledged measures, although fiscal problems should not be ignored.”

On Thursday, former LDP Secretary-General Hiroyuki Hosoda, who is close to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, said, “The torrential rain in western Japan confirmed the need for large-scale (flood-control) dams.”

The motivation behind the LDP bigwigs’ remarks are apparently economic concerns linked to the Upper House election and a round of nationwide local elections also slated for next year, sources said.

Despite the economic uptick generated by the prime minister’s reflationary Abenomics policy, signs of slowdown are becoming apparent. Critics are also pointing to performance gaps between metropolitan and rural areas.

In addition, public support for the Cabinet has not fully recovered from the plunge caused by the cronyism scandals dogging his administration, which center on alleged favors for school operators Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Gakuen.

“We will lose (the elections) unless we use money for disaster-hit areas,” a senior LDP official said. Turning Japan into a country resistant to disasters is “an eye-catching policy,” the official said.

The prime minister has also instructed his staff to take measures that allow disaster-hit prefectures and municipalities to spend massively on reconstruction projects without having to worrying about the cost, people close to him say.

It appears Abe aims to use the initiative to “make Japan disaster-resistant” as a springboard for his campaign to win a third term as LDP president in the party’s leadership election in September, pundits said.

In fact, Abe said Monday that his government has drawn up the first set of assistance to players in the agriculture, forestry and fisheries industries and small businesses damaged by floods in west Japan.The package, centering on financial assistance, is aimed primarily at helping farmers and small businesses get back on their feet.

The government plans to map out additional aid soon.

In the meantime, LDP Policy Research Council Chairman Fumio Kishida, who is viewed as a potential candidate for LDP president, is putting priority on fiscal reconstruction.

In a Friday TV program, he said, “Fiscal consolidation shouldn’t be made light of” although a review of budget-related matters is necessary.

The Finance Ministry is believed to be cautious about jacking up spending because the public works budget has climbed for sixth consecutive years, informed sources said.