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Upper House Election Grave Test for Japanese PM
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With dropping support rate and public distrust incurred by the pension record-keeping errors, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sits a grave test on the July 29 upper house election, the first major election since he took post last September.

A series of troubles have arisen in the first year of Abe's administration. In December, Genichiro Sata resigned his post of administrative reform minister over a scandal that his defunct political support group falsified political fund reports.

A month later, health minister Hakuo Yanagisawa called women "birth-giving machines" in a speech, drawing wide criticism. In May, the Abe Cabinet was dealt another blow, with the farm minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka committed suicide over a political funds scandal.

More recently, Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma made a speech that appeared to legitimize the 1945 dropping of an atomic bomb on Nagasaki, angering the victims and giving the oppositions another topic in debates.

Moreover, the publicity of pension record-keeping errors in late May added challenges for Abe. Some 50 million unidentified pension accounts due to record-keeping errors would lead many pensioners to get less benefits than they have paid for in premiums. The blunder further deepened public distrust towards Abe's government.

According to an Asahi Shimbun newspaper poll released Monday, the support rate for Abe's administration fell to the lowest of 28 percent from around 70 percent when he assumed the post, while disapproval rating stood at 48 percent.

The five-month Diet session, begun Jan. 25, has been extended for 12 days through Thursday. With the bills addressing the pension blunder passed the parliament, the session is practically over, as both the ruling and opposition blocs would focus on election campaigning this week.

Abe prolonged the current parliament session in an effort to score political points before the upper house poll. The legislation approved Saturday is to scrap a time limit for pensioners to make pension claims so those whose payment records are missing can recover what they are entitled to.

The Social Insurance Agency, under fire for a series of scandals including lavish spending of pension funds even before the record-keeping blunder, will be dissolved under a separate law and its pension division will be taken over by a new public corporation.

In a further effort to amend the pension issue, Abe and some Cabinet members will return part of their summer bonuses to take responsibility. Social Insurance Agency chief Kiyoshi Murase said he was returning his entire 2.7 million yen (US$22,000) bonus.

The oppositions and local media, however, did not deem these measures enough. They urged the Abe Cabinet disclose the details of the problem and tackle it with all efforts in stead of staging some shows before the major election.

Abe claimed that his administration would settle the pension problem within a year. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has been working on the modification of the Constitution and has put it on top of its political agenda. The largest opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), in contrast, has endeavored to take the pension errors as an issue to challenge the ruling bloc.

The House of Counselors election is held every three years in Japan, with half the chamber's 242 seats at stake. The governing LDP and coalition New Komeito now hold a total of 132 seats in the upper house. Whether the ruling bloc can continue holding over half of the seats is still under question.

The media and analysts are also guessing whether Abe would resign if the election turns out to be a complete failure for the ruling coalition. According to reports, former premiers Yoshiro Mori and Junichiro Koizumi encouraged Abe recently, and called him to continue his reform even though the election may be a failure for the LDP, since the ruling party still occupies a majority number of seats in the lower house.

Abe himself avoided the topic whether he would resign or not after the election in a recent interview with the local media. However, he said he would take responsibility, as he is the president of the ruling party. Whether the first post-war born Japanese premier would pass his first major political test, is yet to be known.

(Xinhua News Agency July 2, 2007)

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