Friday, January 18, 2008

Japan's Dilemma

Japan’s Maritime Self Defense Force is making preparations to send a fleet oiler to the Indian Ocean next month to refuel and resupply of coalition warships in an operation that has been suspended since November 1 last year when the previous enabling law expired.

The authorization to renew refueling came after the House of Representatives, overruling the other house in Japan's bicameral parliament, passed legislation permitting the navy to begin supporting allied warships in the Indian Ocean once again.

Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda invoked a seldom-used provision of the constitution that allows the lower house to override a decision of the House of Councillors by a two-thirds majority vote. The upper house, now controlled by the opposition, had previously killed the refueling legislation.

Fukuda is probably relieved to get this contentious issue behind him, at least for another year, clearing the deck for the up-coming regular Diet session where he will be under increasing pressure to call a general election.

His government felt obligated to renew the refueling operations to show solidarity with its chief ally, the United States. But politically it is a loser for him at home. The public tends to support the position of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, which opposes such activities unless specifically authorized by the United Nations.

But as the year opens, neither Fukuda nor opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa has many attractive options. Fukuda’s main problem is simply to govern in the face of opposition from the Democrats who now control the upper house, which must approve all legislation subject the override provision.

The Democratic Party’s strategy is straight-forward – outright opposition in hopes of creating an impasse that can only be broken by a new election. Since its victory in the July election, the Democrats have sat on virtually every piece of legislation to emerge save for a very few motherhood issues such as a relief bill for those suffering from Hepatitis C contracted from tainted blood.

Fukuda could, of course, continue to use his two-thirds majority in the lower house to ram its bills through parliament, as it did with the refueling bill, but this risks charges of arrogance and ignoring the people’s will as expressed in the most recent election, last July’s Democratic triumph.

The public is unused to the over-ride mechanism, which had not been used previously since 1951 and strikes the average Japanese as somewhat unfair in this consensus-ruled society, even though perfectly constitutional. Fukuda himself said, “as a rule, I do not think it should be used frequently.”

A showdown might shape up over passing the budget and related bills this spring. Fukuda does not need upper house concurrence in passing the budget, which is the sole prerogative of the lower house, but he does need its approval for passing bills related to the budget, such as raising or lowering taxes.

Fukuda does not have to call a general election for the House of Representatives until September, 2009, and he says he would prefer not to call one, at least until after the meeting of the G-8 in Hokkaido in July. Nevertheless, both parties are making plans for new polls sometime in the new year.

Fukuda has nowhere to go but down in such a poll. That’s the legacy of former premier Junichiro Koizumi’s smashing general election victory in 2005, which saw the Liberal Democratic Party, which already enjoyed a majority, gain some 80 seats. It is hard to see how Fukuda could improve on that, especially as he lacks Koizumi’s impressive talent for political theater. Probably, the most he could hope for would be to stay in power with a reduced majority.

But his counter-part Ozawa faces uncertainties too. Even though his party is on a roll, even though the Fukuda government’s approval ratings are sinking, even though the public is still upset with the way the government is handling the pension funds fiasco, obtaining a working majority to form a government may be a bridge too far.

Of course, it is possible that Ozawa could win an outright majority and initiate the first real change of power since the post-war years, but he has an awfully big mountain to climb to do it. Realistically, Ozawa needs two elections, one to get him in striking distance and the other to put him over.

So Japan could find itself in a worse predicament, as the LDP would probably no longer enjoy the two-thirds majority is has now and thus would not be in a position to override the upper house. (Fukuda cannot dissolve the upper house which is elected on a fixed schedule. The next poll isn’t until July 2010.)

If the LDP prevails, even with a reduced majority, Fukuda then would be the one with the fresh mandate and insist that the opposition party in the upper house cooperate in passing bills or paint the opposition as dead-end obstructionists. Whether the opposition would be disposed to cooperate remains to be seen.

The only way out of that impasse might be the formation of a national unity government, a grand coalition between the LDP and its allies and the Democrats, which would leave only the tiny communist contingent as the official opposition.

Fukuda gave this notion a test run in November, and Ozawa seemed interested in listening until the other senior members of the party quashed the proposal. But if the current situation prevails, it may be the only way out.


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