I cannot help but suspect that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and the members of his Cabinet feel beset with troubles both at home and abroad as the current session of the Diet enters the homestretch.
Japanese dissatisfaction with politics and the Liberal Democratic Party has reached a new high following a series of scandals involving powerful LDP lawmakers. Muneo Suzuki has quit the LDP, while Koichi Kato and Upper House President Yutaka Inoue have given up their parliamentary seats.
Popular reaction was evidenced most vividly in the resounding defeat suffered by an LDP candidate in the Lower House by-election late in April in Niigata Prefecture, historically a stronghold of the conservative forces.
The Koizumi government’s public approval rating, which had stood at about 80 percent for eight months, plummeted to less than 50 percent after Koizumi dismissal of Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka in late January. There’s no end in sight to further declines in popularity.
To further complicate circumstances surrounding the Koizumi regime, armed Chinese policemen rushed into the Japanese Consulate General in Shenyang on May 8 to capture five North Korean asylum seekers. The Japanese government rightly lodged a stern protest against China for violating an international treaty guaranteeing the extraterritoriality of diplomatic establishments.
Early the following day, however, the Chinese side bitterly criticized how the consulate general had handled the case, spurring Japanese public opinion against the Foreign Ministry’s ambiguous attitude and refusal to make disclosures. In the end, the government had to accept such criticisms and to make an apology.
On May 14, it was revealed that before noon on May 8, immediately before the Chinese police entered the consulate general, Japanese Ambassador to China Koreshige Anami had instructed all members of the embassy to expel any North Korean asylum seekers attempting to enter the embassy compound.
Discrepancies arising between the Japanese and Chinese versions are clearly attributable to shortcomings in the policies and attitudes pursued by the Japanese Foreign Ministry.
Meanwhile, the government and the LDP are becoming critical of a series of scandals involving the ministry, which in turn has contributed to a further deterioration in Koizumi’s popularity.
The legislature is in for an extremely busy period between now and the scheduled end of the current session, as important bills await deliberation involving the medical system, the postal system, emergency national defense and press control. As the lawmakers are bogged down in dealing with one scandal after another, they have not been able to deliberate on any of these bills, and their passage is not assured.
The bills related to emergency national defense and press control, in particular, have come under strong criticism from the public, making it certain that the debates will continue to the very end of the current session.
The postal reform bill, meanwhile, constitutes the very core of a series of legislative proposals that Koizumi has submitted to the National Diet as part of his proposed structural reforms. It will be interesting to watch how the governing coalition and opposition parties seek to amend and pass the bill.
As the parliamentary session nears its scheduled adjournment date, the prime minister will have to choose between two alternatives: seeking a major extension of the current session into July or August, or letting the current session end as scheduled because of the World Cup soccer games and then convening an extraordinary session in or after August.
Another critical decision he will have to make in this connection is when to reshuffle his Cabinet, or when to to gamble by dissolving the Lower House and calling a general election. According to an NHK opinion poll taken May 10-12, the Koizumi government’s rate of approval stood at 43 percent while 45 percent expressed disapproval.
The Japanese political landscape appears to be in for a hot and muggy summer between now and August, as Koizumi will have to decide whether to seek an extension of the Diet session, reshuffle his Cabinet, dissolve the Lower House and call a general election, or live with ever-dwindling popularity.
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