The regular Diet session has been extended for 42 days through July 31. On Wednesday, when the extension was approved, the Lower House voted unanimously to accept a request from the Tokyo District Court to issue an arrest warrant for legislator Muneo Suzuki. And later the same day, public prosecutors in Tokyo arrested him on bribery charges.
Suzuki’s arrest marked the climax of a session plagued by a series of corruption scandals involving not only Suzuki but also a few other legislators. Earlier this year, former Liberal Democratic Party Secretary General Koichi Kato and Upper House President Yutaka Inoue both resigned from the Diet.
The scandals aside, the extended session has a lot of work to do. The agenda includes bills on health insurance reform, postal service deregulation, personal data protection and response to military emergencies. Stalemate continues in the discussion of these key measures, although the budget-related health bill — which the ruling parties have rammed through a Lower House committee — is considered almost certain to pass. Still, it faces strong resistance from the opposition camp.
In addition, the opposition is demanding a clarification of the Defense Agency report on its controversial compilation of lists of personal details about people who have requested documents from the agency under the Freedom of Information Law. So there will be twists and turns before the Diet resumes full-dress deliberations.
It is likely that the health bill and the postal deregulation package — a showcase for Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s structural reform plans — will be enacted this session. But passage of the bills on personal data protection and military emergencies appear difficult because the public is highly critical of these measures.
The current Diet session, which has been racked by a spate of corruption scandals since Makiko Tanaka was fired as foreign minister in late January, so far has a bad track record. This has also tarnished the public image of the Koizumi administration.
The Diet’s poor showing also reflects the fact that the economic situation in Japan has hardly improved, despite the government’s optimistic pronouncements and forecasts. There remain vague anxieties at home and persistent concerns abroad about Japan’s economic and fiscal problems.
August and September, following the close of the extended session at the end of July, are looming as critical months for the government and the ruling parties. The view is now gaining ground in the government and the LDP that the Cabinet and party executives should be reshuffled in this period to revive public sentiment and change the image of the Koizumi administration.
The central figure in a looming LDP leadership reshuffle is Secretary General Taku Yamasaki, whose affair with a woman hit headlines recently. His exit, if it happens, will deal a further blow to Koizumi, who came into office in April last year on the strength of the “YKK” alliance (Yamasaki, Koizumi and Kato). Kato, who fell in disgrace this spring, is no longer a member of the alliance.
Koizumi himself has taken a beating in opinion polls. His public approval ratings, which stayed around 80 percent before he dismissed popular Tanaka, have since dropped by nearly 50 percent. So the odds are stacked heavily against both Koizumi and Yamasaki, but they seem to have no choice but to carry on.
Also looming large is the struggle between LDP groups that support the Koizumi reforms and opponents. Koizumi, who swept to power on a wave of popularity more than a year ago, continues to put up a “one-man show,” but this administration has failed to work as an effective team.
Earlier in the administration Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda projected a strong presence. Now, however, there is talk that this administration has no “command post.” There is even speculation inside the LDP that Fukuda may be looking to take over from Koizumi.
Some outside the party say that Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara is setting his sights on a campaign to succeed Koizumi. But the prevailing view is that there is no sure-fire replacement for Koizumi, despite his falling popularity. Nevertheless, the political situation in Japan is likely to enter a turbulent period from July to September.
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