An extraordinary Diet session under new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is set to open Monday, kicking off a fierce showdown between an experienced power-broker with his own policy ambitions and opposition parties determined to paint the administration as brazen through relentless inquiries on the rejection of appointments to the Science Council of Japan.

During the 41-day session, the Suga administration will be aiming to focus on passing critical legislation — such as a trade deal with the United Kingdom and government compensation for possible health defects attributed to coronavirus vaccines — while fending off challenges on the council controversy.

“In reality, I wish I could see the differences between the ruling and the opposition parties become apparent through deliberations of each bill submitted and debates on why they are needed,” said Jun Iio, a professor of Japanese politics at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies. “The ruling and opposition parties are already engaged in a faceoff and, unfortunately, I expect the Diet deliberations to be dull like with the previous Cabinet, with the opposition continuing to raise specific issues and the government continuing to reiterate the same answers.”

Although Suga faced opposition criticism and tough questioning from lawmakers when he was the chief Cabinet secretary under former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the upcoming Diet battle will be viewed as a key barometer of his ability and fitness as the nation’s leader.

”As far as the extraordinary Diet session goes, first and foremost I pledged to balance both the novel coronavirus measures and economic recovery in the Liberal Democratic Party presidential election,” Suga told reporters in Jakarta on Wednesday as he was wrapping up his four-day visit to Vietnam and Indonesia.

The extraordinary session’s opening on Monday will be marked by Suga’s policy speech, with the prime minister presenting an outline of what he wants to achieve during the term. In the speech, he is expected to recapitulate his talking points on cutting through red tape, facilitating digitalization, diversifying the supply chain and expanding insurance coverage to infertility treatment to boost the nation’s sagging birth rate. He is also expected to unveil a bold plan to make Japan carbon neutral by 2050.

Representatives from each party will ask Suga questions in both chambers of the Diet starting Wednesday for three days. The Lower House will hold the session’s first Budget Committee debate — the primary battleground between the administration and opposition parties — on Nov. 2. The Diet is slated to close Dec. 15, but a regular session debating the fiscal 2021 budget will begin soon after in January.

Opposition parties hold talks in Tokyo on Wednesday on Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's decision not to appoint academics to a science council that makes policy recommendations to the government. | KYODO
Opposition parties hold talks in Tokyo on Wednesday on Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s decision not to appoint academics to a science council that makes policy recommendations to the government. | KYODO

Nine bills and one treaty for ratification are set to be submitted before the Diet. One of them is legislation to ratify a trade deal between Tokyo and London. The two sides reached an agreement at record speed, with the U.K. desperate to acquire its first significant post-Brexit trade pact. The deal was based on the Japan-EU pact that the U.K. is part of until December. Britain is set to formally withdraw from the European Union in January, the end of the transition period.

Another important piece of legislation to be debated is about coronavirus vaccines. The government is planning to shield pharmaceutical companies and research laboratories from liability by paying compensation on their behalf in the event of vaccine side effects. By providing them immunity, the government is aiming to push them to expedite development and distribution.

During the first month of his administration, Suga introduced a series of policy proposals catering to his ambitions: lowering cellphone bills, eliminating hanko stamps in government documents and popularizing telemedicine. He has instructed his Cabinet ministers to work out details on those issues and report back to him frequently, hoping to have a solid track record that he will be able to point to as a demonstration of what he calls a “Cabinet that works for the people.”

Trying to rebut criticism that he is a diplomatic novice, he also embarked on a four-day trip to Vietnam and Indonesia to assure his commitment to the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy.”

“Suga has confirmed his pragmatism by stating his commitment to policy goals that seem attainable and also likely to have broad support,” said Amy Catalinac, an assistant professor of Japanese politics at New York University.

His honeymoon period, however, was cut short by the administration’s actions on a key personnel matter. Personnel management is something Suga has been embracing as a powerful tool to promote bureaucrats that back his policy goals while threatening to demote those who defy him.

In late September, the administration broke with precedent and refused to appoint six academics, who had been critical of Abe’s national security legislation, to serve on the Science Council of Japan. The council, which is independent of the government but is under the prime minister’s jurisdiction, recommends new members every three years, and the prime minister officially nominates them.

The decision has raised concerns that Suga is applying political pressure to retaliate against academics who disagree with the government’s policies, thereby subverting academic freedom. Suga has defended the decision, arguing that it was legal and part of his broader effort to tear apart precedents.

Opinion polls show that the public has taken notice of the controversy. According to a Kyodo News poll from this month, 45.9% of respondents said Suga’s actions were inappropriate, surpassing the 35.5% who backed him.

A three-day extraordinary session of the Diet opened in Tokyo on Sept. 17, with Emperor Naruhito in attendance. | KYODO
A three-day extraordinary session of the Diet opened in Tokyo on Sept. 17, with Emperor Naruhito in attendance. | KYODO

Asked about his effort to defend the rejection of the scholars, about which he refused to elaborate other than saying “it was done from the standpoint of securing the organization’s collective and comprehensive activities,” 72.7% of respondents said they were not satisfied.

His Cabinet’s approval rating dipped by 5.9 points to 60.5% while the disapproval rating jumped by 5.7 points to 21.9%.

Opposition parties are determined to interrogate Suga in the fall parliamentary session.

“It’s obvious that political authority did intervene in academic freedom and freedom of speech, so I want to press for accountability, questioning the administration’s disposition in the upcoming Diet session,” Jun Azumi, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan Diet affairs chief, said Wednesday.

This Diet session also marks a debut for the new CDP, which increased its numbers through a partial merger with the Democratic Party for the People (DPP) this summer. The party now has 150 lawmakers: 107 in the Lower House and 43 in the Upper House. It is the first time the largest opposition party has seen more than 100 members in the Lower House in eight years. Although the two parties initially sought a complete merger, talks broke down because of ideological differences on issues such nuclear power.

Hopes among the public regarding opposition parties, however, remains tepid. In the October Kyodo poll, the CDP’s approval rate was 6.4%. The DPP, which now has only 16 members across both chambers, saw an approval rate of just 1.3%.

Azumi, the CDP Diet affairs chief, said the party would also grill the administration on coronavirus measures, knowing that the science council controversy alone is not enough to go after the administration.

“This extraordinary session is about coronavirus response,” Azumi said. “I think it’d be better for the prime minister to have opportunities to have concentrated debates on the fundamentals of the government (virus) responses other than basic debates (on the proposed legislation).”

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks to the media during a news conference in Jakarta on Wednesday. | POOL / VIA REUTERS
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks to the media during a news conference in Jakarta on Wednesday. | POOL / VIA REUTERS

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