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Komeito cash handout demand highlights Abe's fading power amid outbreak

by Satoshi Sugiyama

STAFF WRITER

Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi marched into the Prime Minister’s Office Wednesday morning with an ultimatum about the government’s emergency economic relief plan for the coronavirus.

Abandon the ¥300,000 per qualified household cash handout and go with ¥100,000 per person without income restrictions, the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party’s junior coalition partner told the prime minister and LDP chief. Otherwise, risk alienating a public that is growing increasingly weary of the pandemic and frustrated with the way the administration is handling it.

“The prime minister responded, ‘I will consider it with a course of action,’” Yamaguchi said Wednesday after meeting with Abe. “My understanding is he responded to the suggestion positively.”

On the following day, Abe ordered a reorganization of the supplementary budget proposal his Cabinet approved a week earlier, a highly unusual step for which he was later forced to apologize during a nationally televised news conference.

The turnabout marked an extraordinary moment in the over seven-year-long reign of Abe, putting Komeito, which dared to challenge the prime minister’s single-handed decision-making authority, under the spotlight and providing a glimpse of the ruling coalition’s mounting exasperation with his administration.

Analysts speculate Komeito chose to go bold with Abe after worrying that his targeted approach would leave out many individuals and families in need, including those in its Buddhist support base organization Soka Gakkai, which is a key voting force for the ruling coalition. Learning the limited payment plan was not received well in opinion polls, the party might have also believed that a wider-reaching package was necessary to preserve the coalition.

“Komeito was able to force such an unprecedented (move) and (the) abrupt policy shift is a clear sign that a) the party’s power is perhaps underappreciated and b) Abe’s power has weakened to the point that Komeito could flex its muscles so effectively,” said Tobias Harris, a Japan analyst for Teneo Intelligence in Washington.

Until the flip-flop, the administration was all set to proceed with giving out ¥300,000 to individual households where incomes have been halved due to the virus outbreak or cut to a level that would allow the household to qualify as exempt from paying residential tax.

The plan was based on an LDP proposal put forth by its policy council chairman, Fumio Kishida, even though he initially pushed for a uniform monetary handout as a way to provide immediate relief for those struggling due to the pandemic.

In the meantime, Komeito proposed distributing a cash handout of ¥100,000 per person to those who experience steep income declines, on March 31.

Some members, though, put pressure on Komeito’s leadership to go further and distribute the amount to all citizens swiftly, which the opposition parties also supported. Those with stable and high incomes could reimburse through a year-end tax adjustment or final tax return, they argued.

Abe ignored those demands, claiming it would be faster to give out ¥300,000 to targeted households. He essentially sided with the Finance Ministry, led by his close associate and deputy prime minister, Taro Aso, who was passive on the across-the-board cash handout.

However, the ¥300,000 plan soon began to unravel as the public learned about the complexity of the conditions that went with that and became progressively distrustful of the central government’s seriousness in rescuing those in need.

Reacting to the dismissive attitude with alarm, LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai said last Tuesday the party would make an appeal to the government to approve the ¥100,000 handout — but only with income restrictions attached and only after the Diet passes a supplementary budget bill that incorporates Abe’s limited ¥300,000 handout.

Taking advantage of Nikai’s remark, Komeito continued to take a hard-line stance — with apparent backing from Soka Gakkai, and continued to apply pressure on the administration.

The party didn’t even hesitate to take provocative action, boycotting a meeting Thursday to decide a schedule for the supplementary budget as a protest gesture against the LDP.

Despite having a much smaller number of seats compared to the LDP, Komeito has “remarkable ability to punch significantly above its weight and constrain its far larger senior partner,” wrote Adam P. Liff and Ko Maeda, Japanese politics professors at Indiana University and the University of North Texas, respectively.

“Electoral cooperation between the LDP and Komeito takes the form of mutual stand-down agreements, which render many LDP candidates dependent on Komeito supporters to get elected in (single-member districts),” they wrote in an academic paper published in 2019.

“Meanwhile, many Komeito Diet members would not be elected if the LDP were to nominate competing candidates. Japan’s electoral system has thus enabled a remarkably durable, codependent relationship … difficult for either party to forsake.”

During the showdown at the Prime Minister’s Office Wednesday, Yamaguchi, the Komeito leader, alluded to the possibility of dissolving the coalition, leaving Abe startled, Jiji Press reported.

Left with no viable alternative, Abe begrudgingly instructed his Cabinet to redo the supplementary budget bill, even though it would take another week. Total spending for the cash disbursement is expected to increase from ¥6 trillion to ¥14 trillion.

“It’s my responsibility that there has been some confusion in the process up until this point and I’d like to apologize to the people from the bottom of my heart,” Abe said during Friday’s news conference.

The timing of the ¥300,000 mishap could not have been worse for Abe. His administration’s policy to distribute two reusable cloth face masks per household nationwide turned out to be wildly unpopular. On social media, with a hint of derision, the policy was dubbed “Abenomasks.”

Although he explained the policy is to make up for the chronic shortage of masks across the country, critics slammed the cost associated with the distribution and said it should have been earmarked for something else, describing his policy as out of touch with the public’s pressing needs.

The prime minister further antagonized the public by posting a video on Twitter calling for people to stay at home during the pandemic.

The footage — showing Abe at home sipping from a teacup and petting his dog on the sofa, juxtaposed with a video clip showing popular musician Gen Hoshino singing a song about dancing indoors — sparked outrage on social media. Critics described him as demonstrating indifference toward those who are now struggling to make a living because of the pandemic.

Despite declaring the state of emergency that enabled prefectural governments to ask nonessential businesses to voluntarily close, the central government and the nation’s governors have been clashing over the funding of compensation.

Confirming the growing mistrust toward Abe, poll after poll shows his approval rate dropping from the previous month, giving a thumbs down to his crisis-management ability.

Komeito appears to be taking advantage of Abe’s unpopularity to gain momentum and does not seem afraid of playing hardball, some analysts have said.

“If Japan can avoid a wider outbreak that overwhelms the medical system, perhaps Abe will be able to survive to the end of his term,” Harris from Teneo Intelligence said. “But it does suggest that if the situation worsens, he will face growing dissent from within the ruling coalition and perhaps even calls to resign, at least once the acute phase of the crisis has passed.”

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