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Despite LDP Setback, Show Must Go on
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It was a "historic" outcome for a House of Councilors election. It was the first time since the 1955 merger of the Liberal and Democratic parties that an opposition party has become the largest in the Japanese upper house.

It is certain to have a major impact on both the political management of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has declared he would maintain his grip on the reins of the government, and the manner in which business is conducted in the Diet. The result of this election could well alter the nation's political structure.

The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) suffered a humiliating loss, while coalition partner New Komeito had to settle for a small showing - costing the ruling bloc its majority in the upper chamber.

The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), meanwhile, made impressive gains, becoming the largest party in the upper house.

The political winds shifted in favor of the DPJ in the wake of public criticism of "blunders" by Abe's government and the LDP, including pension record-keeping errors, questionable handling of office expenses by LDP members and controversial and careless remarks by Cabinet members.

Persistent dissatisfaction regarding "social and economic disparities" among laborers and rural dwellers, who believe they are not benefiting from the nation's economic expansion, apparently resulted in sharp criticism against the Abe administration and the ruling parties.

The election tactics of DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa also appeared to be successful. Ozawa focused his campaign efforts on prefectural constituencies in which one seat was up for election. In those constituencies, traditional LDP support bases such as the construction industry, agricultural sector and postmasters' organization, have been shaken.

DPJ responsibility

The DPJ, which will take leadership in managing affairs in the upper house as the largest party in the chamber, must bear heavy responsibility in this "twisted" situation in which the ruling coalition has a majority in the lower house and the opposition has a majority in the upper house.

Ozawa has insisted that the DPJ's sights are set on transferring power by obtaining a majority in the upper house. With an eye to realigning the political landscape, Ozawa seems determined to squeeze the government and ruling coalition so it has no option but to dissolve the House of Representatives.

If a bill sponsored by the government and the ruling coalition passes the lower house and is sent to the upper house, the opposition bloc-controlled upper house can reject or revise the bill. This situation leaves the government and the ruling coalition on shaky ground should the opposition bloc submit a bill to the upper house that is passed and sent to the lower house.

The ruling coalition, which controls more than two-thirds of lower house seats, can pass again and enact a bill that is rejected in the upper house. However, this will not be easy in reality.

Of most concern is the effect Sunday's results will impart on promoting key domestic and international policies.

One issue that could get bogged down is tax and fiscal reform, including raising the consumption tax rate to secure sufficient financial sources to stabilize the social security system for the provision of pension, medical and nursing care.

Another issue is the realignment of US forces stationed in Japan. How will the opposition camp deal with the relocation of the US Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station in Okinawa Prefecture? The DPJ opposed the special law to promote the realignment of US forces. The DPJ's handling of this matter could undermine trust in the Japan-US security alliance that is essential for ensuring this country's peace and security.

If these concerns become reality, the two-chamber system and significance of the upper house's existence will be called into question.

When it comes to important issues at home and abroad, it is important that the DPJ firmly stick to its stance as a responsible political party rather than simply playing political games.

The LDP's crushing defeat in Sunday's election was a result of widespread dissatisfaction toward the party over a number of issues.

The pension record-keeping blunders stoked distrust in the government administration over the pension system. A string of scandals involving dubious accounting reports for office expenses by Genichiro Sata, state minister in charge of administrative reform, former Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka, and his successor Norihiko Akagi, all raised public skepticism about "politics and money".

The LDP also suffered a serious blow when then Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma made a comment that was construed as justifying the United States' atomic bombing of Japan. The statement later led to Kyuma being forced to resign.

Abe has been the subject of strong criticism for appointing such ministers, who are said to have received their portfolios as reward for their contributions to Abe's campaign to become LDP president.

Abe must respect mandate

The issues of pension - the most contentious matter in the poll - and the widening socioeconomic gap are a legacy echoing from past administrations. Responsibility for these problems should not rest entirely on the 10-month-old Abe administration.

The social security fiasco was the result of lax management on the part of the Social Insurance Agency. Past cabinets that failed to properly oversee the agency bear much of the responsibility.

One factor behind the widening social and economic disparities is that the government failed to introduce economic stimulus measures during the 1990s, the so-called lost decade. Excessive pro-market principle policies under Heizo Takenaka - then state minister for economic and fiscal policy under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi - played a key role in widening the gap.

Had Abe distanced himself from Koizumi's extravagance, the current prime minister would not be accused of producing negative policies that reflect those of his predecessor.

Despite suffering this serious setback, Abe stuck to his guns, saying: "I will fulfill my duty to create a new nation." This apparently was his way of expressing determination to tackle constitutional revision and educational reform under the concept of making a "departure from the postwar regime".

To do so, Abe must take seriously the voters' mandate, and must work to rebuild the foundation of his administration and his party, all the while seeking ways to cooperate with the DPJ.

(China Daily via The Yomiuri Shimbun July 31, 2007)

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