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     Jul 6, 2007
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Japan: A political tsunami approaches
By Hisane Masaki

TOKYO - A political tsunami may sweep Japan soon and alter the nation's political landscape amid an ever swelling wave of public anger over the government's pension records-keeping fiasco and other scandals.

Will the government of beleaguered Prime Minister Shinzo Abe manage to keep itself afloat? Or will it be written off by voters and pensioned off in a key national election this month? Or will there

be any other sea-changes?

For Abe, the election for the House of Councilors, or the upper house of Japan's bicameral Diet (parliament), on July 29 will be a moment of truth, as it is his first electoral test since he took office last autumn. As things stand now, Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)-led coalition is facing an uphill battle to retain a majority.

A loss of control of the chamber, even after wooing independent conservatives and possibly members of tiny conservative parties, would make the Abe government a lame duck at best. Chances of its being toppled immediately after the poll because of a landslide defeat are also growing. Some pundits even say that the upcoming election could trigger a new wave of realignments in Japanese politics.

For Abe and his coalition, things are turning from bad to worse. Public support for the Abe cabinet remains stuck at abysmally low levels because of the pension issue and a series of other political scandals, with some recent opinion polls showing it slipping below 30%, a figure widely considered to be a crisis level for any cabinet.

In yet another serious blow to the already embattled prime minister and his coalition, Fumio Kyuma, the gaffe-prone defense minister, resigned on Tuesday after causing widespread outrage with remarks that were widely taken as justifying the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States in the closing days of World War II. Kyuma said in a speech last weekend that the A-bomb attacks "could not be helped".

Defense became the third cabinet portfolio to change hands since Abe was inaugurated last September, succeeding Junichiro Koizumi. One of two scandal-tainted members of the Abe team resigned in December and the other committed suicide in May. Kyuma's resignation - and Abe's acceptance of it - was aimed at minimizing any adverse effect on the coalition's prospects in the upcoming election.

Yuriko Koike, Abe's 54-year-old special adviser on national security, stepped into Kyuma's shoes as defense chief on Wednesday. Abe's appointment of the popular former environment minister as Japan's first female defense chief apparently reflects a strong desire to see her play the role of poster child for the coalition in the election campaign, which will officially kick off on July 12.

Life-or-death threshold
Abe, who doubles as LDP president, has sought desperately to soothe voters' furor over mismanaged pension records and other scandals ahead of the July 29 poll. But as recent opinion polls show, he has so far failed to do so.

The Social Insurance Agency, under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, has been found to have some 50 million unidentified pension premium-payment records. This means many retirees could get short-changed.

Abe has promised to clean up the pension problem within a year. Last week, the LDP-led coalition also pushed through a pair of pension-related bills to deal with the fiasco. The two new laws, enacted in an extended ordinary session of the Diet, will dissolve the Social Insurance Agency and scrap the five-year statute of limitations on claims for unpaid pensions.

Last week, the coalition also pushed through the Diet a bill to enhance transparency in political-fund transfers in the wake of a spate of scandals involving some politicians from both the ruling and opposition camps. The new law requires lawmakers' political-fund management groups to attach a receipt to their fund reports for every recurring spending item worth 50,000 yen (US$408) or more.

Last week, the coalition also rammed through the Diet a bill to revise the National Public Service Law to deal with the problem of the much-criticized 'amakudari' (descent from heaven) practice of post-retirement hiring of senior bureaucrats in government affiliates as well as corporations.

At the behest of Abe, the coalition had extended the Diet session by 12 days from its original closing day of June 23 until this Thursday to ensure the enactment of those key bills. As a result, the quadrennial House of Councilors election has been delayed by a week from the originally planned July 22 to July 29. It remains to be seen whether - and how - the delay will affect the results.

Aside from the pension fiasco, rehabilitating the creaking social-security system, including pension, medical insurance and nursing-care insurance for the elderly, has emerged as a pressing task for the government amid the rapidly graying population.

Many critics charge that both the LDP-led coalition and the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) are irresponsible because the former has opted to steer clear of a possible hike in the current 5% consumption tax until after the House of Councilors election and the latter has dropped its earlier proposal for an increase in the tax rate to 8%. Many experts say - and even many voters feel - that a hike in the consumption tax will become inevitable in the not-so-distant future to finance rising social-security costs and stem an even further rise in government debts.

The consumption tax was introduced in 1989, but only a few months later, then-prime minister Noboru Takeshita was forced to resign. The tax rate was raised from the original 3% to the current 5% in 1997, after which consumer spending slumped and the country slipped back into recession. The LDP suffered a debilitating loss in the House of Councilors election held the following year, forcing then-prime minister Ryutaro Hashimoto from office.

Capitalizing on public outrage over the pension and other scandals, Ichiro Ozawa, leader of the biggest opposition DPJ, has vowed to stake his political life on depriving the LDP-led coalition of a majority in the House of Councilors. Ozawa made it clear on Thursday that he will step down as leader if the opposition camp fails. If the coalition loses a majority in the upper house, the Abe government would be a lame duck.

To be sure, the coalition between the LPD and New Komeito, a party backed by lay Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai, commands more than a two-thirds majority in the 480-seat House of Representatives, the more powerful lower house of the Diet, after a landslide victory in the election held in September 2005 under Koizumi. Nevertheless, if the LDP-New Komeito coalition loses a majority, it will face significant difficulties pushing through its legislative agendas, causing political paralysis.

At present, the LDP-New Komeito coalition has a majority of 134 seats in the 242-seat House of Councilors, with 110 held by the 

Continued 1 2 

Headwind for Japanese change (Apr 20, '07)

The need to dwell on Japan's past (Mar 16, '07)

1. Pakistan in crisis over mosque attack

2. What they didn't say at Kennebunkport 

3. US naval call gives India sinking feeling

4. Bush presidency enters terminal phase 

5. India has its own 'soft power' - Buddhism

6. US to hunt the Taliban inside Pakistan

7. US blame game pressures Iran

8. Lebanon bends under extremist challenge

9China, Russia shake
economic status quo

(July 3-4, 2007)


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