The regular Diet session, which was extended on Wednesday for 42 days through July 31, appears headed for further turmoil. The arrest of Lower House member Muneo Suzuki on the same day, immediately following a unanimous vote accepting a court request for an arrest warrant, has removed a big thorn in the side of the legislature, but the problem of political ethics continues to fester.
The unanimous Lower House vote is no assurance that the ruling and opposition parties will join forces in the fight against corruption. Nor is it certain that they will cooperate to clear the legislative logjam. The opposition camp, angry at the railroading of a health care bill by the coalition parties, has been refusing to go along.
The ball is now in the court of the ruling parties. To make the most of the extended session, they must first clear obstacles blocking efforts to break the standoff. For example, they should set the record straight on the verbal gaffe by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda hinting that Japan may revise its nonnuclear weapons policy. Furthermore, disciplinary measures taken on Thursday against Defense Agency officials involved in the preparation and circulation of background lists on information requesters fell short of satisfying the opposition parties and the public.
The purpose of extending the Diet session, according to the ruling parties, is to enact key bills on health care reform, mail service deregulation, defense mobilization and personal data protection. Their passage is by no means assured, though, since they are all highly controversial. The going will likely get rough, depending on how they are handled.
No less important is anticorruption legislation, which has acquired a new urgency because of the Suzuki scandal. Enacting such legislation may not be an explicit objective of the Diet extension, but failure to establish higher standards of political ethics will only increase public cynicism toward politics. Therefore, top priority must be given to this issue.
As for other major bills, the order of priorities appears to have significantly changed. While the health care and postal reform bills remain top items, the defense and privacy measures are apparently being relegated to the background. There is even speculation that they might be shelved or scrapped.
The health bill, tied to reform of the medical insurance system, was rammed through a Lower House committee earlier this month. However, its fate hangs in the balance. The postal bills, including one that would open up mail delivery services, are the centerpiece of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s “structural reform” initiative. Prospects for these proposals are uncertain amid the face-off between the prime minister and antireform forces in his Liberal Democratic Party.
Talk of “killing” the defense and privacy bills, at the time that the Diet has just been extended, seems premature. They are riddled with problems, to be sure, but the flaws can, and should, be corrected. But if there is no chance of meaningful revision in this session, then the bills will have to be carried over to the next session.
One major drawback in the defense bills is that they do not include effective provisions to secure the safety of people in the event of a military emergency. The privacy bill has raised concerns about the protection of personal data collected by public agencies. These and other issues divide not only the ruling and opposition parties but also spark resistance within the ruling parties themselves. Starting from scratch by drafting new bills may be a better way to forge consensus.
As for anticorruption legislation, building on existing measures is probably the best way to go. The problem is the lack of political will to eliminate the roots of money politics. Symbolic of this is the fact that Mr. Suzuki kept his seat even after he was arrested. This is because members of the ruling coalition opposed a Diet resolution calling for his resignation.
It is true that the Diet has been moving toward putting more teeth in anticorruption legislation. But progress so far has been woefully slow. Also worrying is that measures on the table do not go far enough in attacking the root causes of corruption. A case in point is a bill to update the antigraft law, which prohibits peddling influence for private gain.
A bill to prevent bid collusion on public works projects, which reached the Diet floor only recently, is long overdue. A proposal to restrict donations from public works contractors, initiated by Prime Minister Koizumi, has fallen on many deaf ears in the ruling parties. Efforts to straighten out the shady financial connections between Diet members and their government-paid secretaries are making little headway.
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