The government’s withdrawal of a controversial immigration bill reflects Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s desire to avoid a further backlash, with his public support already hit by criticism of a sluggish COVID-19 response.
The revision to the immigration control and refugee recognition law had never been a priority for Suga, who saw it as irrelevant to the average Japanese citizen, according to his aides. Railroading it through the Diet would have also enraged opposition parties and held up legislation he views as more important.
The ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito had hoped to pass the bill during the current Diet session, set to end June 16.
But the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and its allies demanded the government first address allegations that a Sri Lankan woman was mistreated while being held in an immigration facility before her death in March.
The opposition parties called for the Justice Ministry to release video footage of her detention and threatened a censure motion against the chairman of the House of Representatives’ Judicial Affairs Committee.
Senior ruling coalition lawmakers met Tuesday morning and agreed to give up on the bill, with LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai notifying his CDP counterpart Tetsuro Fukuyama of the decision around noon in a lightning-quick turn of events.
Coincidentally, exactly a year earlier Suga’s predecessor and former boss Shinzo Abe was forced to retract a bill to raise the retirement age for prosecutors, amid criticism he was trying to install an ally as the nation’s top legal officer.
The ordeal dealt a huge blow to Abe, the country’s longest-serving prime minister, who announced his resignation in August due to a recurring intestinal illness.
Suga, who was chief Cabinet secretary at the time, is seen as eager to avoid a further deterioration of his public support, especially ahead of elections for the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly in July and the House of Representatives sometime by fall.
The approval rating for his Cabinet stood at 41.1% in a Kyodo News poll conducted last weekend, down from 44.0% in April, amid a surge in coronavirus cases and a slow vaccine rollout.
“Abandoning the immigration bill proves the Suga administration is weakening,” said a veteran CDP lawmaker, while a former minister of the LDP said there is “no need to risk sending public support even lower” by forcing its enactment.
The ruling coalition also has bitter memories of being routed in the 2017 election for the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly after railroading controversial anti-conspiracy legislation through the Diet.
A Komeito heavyweight voiced relief at avoiding a similar scenario, saying, “This time around, we should avoid showing the Japanese people any confusion.”
Angering opposition parties would also jeopardize the government’s proposed revision to the national referendum law, a crucial step toward realizing the LDP’s long-held goal of amending the postwar Constitution.
The House of Councilors began deliberating on the referendum bill on Wednesday after the CDP agreed to help enact the legislation during the current Diet session in exchange for the addition of restrictions on campaign advertising and financing.
“We’re finally on track to pass it. We can’t just throw that chance away,” said a senior Suga administration official.
Meanwhile, opposition parties said they will continue pressing the issue of the Sri Lankan woman, 33-year-old Ratnayake Liyanage Wishma Sandamali, with a senior member of the Japanese Communist Party saying she may have been subjected to “human rights violations” while being held by the Nagoya Regional Immigration Services Bureau.
But a senior CDP lawmaker said the government’s quick withdrawal of the immigration bill meant the opposition no longer has leverage to demand the Justice Ministry release the video footage.
“The problem is how do we get them to release the video footage now?”
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