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Overconfident Abe, weak opposition: Mainichi reporters delve into irregular Diet dealings

Legislators are pictured at a plenary session of the House of Representatives after a bill to revise the Act on Punishment of Organized Crimes and Control of Crime Proceeds was rammed into law on the morning of June 15, 2017. (Mainichi)

During the latest Diet session between Jan. 20 and June 18, the ruling coalition and opposition parties went head to head over scandals relating to the educational bodies Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Educational Institution. Toward the end of the session, the ruling parties took reckless control of the Diet to enact the revised Act on Punishment of Organized Crimes and Control of Crime Proceeds, which criminalizes preparation for terrorism and other crimes by changing the conditions that constitute conspiracy. The ruling coalition skipped the regular committee vote and sent the bill straight to plenary session of the House of Councillors, where the ruling parties used their majority to ram it into law. Recently reporters from the Mainichi Shimbun's political news department got together to speak about Diet session's 150 days, which were tainted by obstinate insistence on certain issues and displays of state power. Dialogue from their session follows.

    Hiroyuki Asahi (sub-leader, prime minister's office team): It was a Diet session marked by slackness. While there were rash remarks and verbal gaffes by Cabinet members, the prime minister's office didn't possess much of a sense of crisis.

    Moderator: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in a news conference on June 19 spoke of his "deep remorse," but immediately after the Diet session ended, a new internal education ministry document relating to the Kake scandal emerged. Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Koichi Hagiuda denied involvement, and confusion has continued.

    Asahi: With regard to the Kake and Moritomo problems, the administration takes the view that there were no outstanding issues with procedures. But the essence of the issue is whether people close to the prime minister, the most powerful figure, received preferential treatment. The perception in society differs (from that of the administration). The prime minister said, "I'll explain things carefully," but officials at the prime minister's office are aligned in the position that he has absolutely no intention of holding further deliberations while the Diet session is closed. They maintain that "in time, people will probably forget about it." It's the same as with the special state secrets law in 2013 and the security-related laws in 2015.

    Muneyoshi Mitsuda (in charge of news on ruling coalition Diet affairs committees): The ruling coalition's behavior in the Diet was full of irregularities, with unsworn witnesses from government bodies being brought in on a steady basis to prevent Justice Minister Katsutoshi Kaneda from having to testify, and deliberation being bypassed in the upper house Judicial Affairs Committee and replaced with an "interim report." Usually the ruling coalition's Diet affairs committees fulfill the roles of applying the brakes and conducting checks while keeping an eye on public opinion and the response of the opposition. It's unusual for us not to be able to hear any marked criticism even from the ruling party's own factions.

    Moderator: What do you think about Komeito (the Liberal Democratic Party's ruling coalition partner), which fancies itself as being able to apply the brakes and conduct checks?

    Katsuya Takahashi (in charge of Komeito news): Even if it's aware of slackness and distortion in the Diet, it doesn't think as far ahead as to fill out a prescription to fix it. Considering the possible effects of the "conspiracy" law on the outcome of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election, it had proposed voting on the law in the upper house after the assembly election. It's a bit hard to understand this "assembly election first" line of thinking.

    Mitsuda: A big factor is that the opposition parties haven't presented themselves as a realistic option to replace the Abe administration. With the momentum (that the administration has now), there's a degree of slackness and arrogance, as if it thinks it can do anything.

    Junya Higuchi (in charge of opposition party news): The opposition parties have sought the resignation of Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Hirokazu Matsuno, and Justice Minister Kaneda, and they feel that under normal circumstances they could have got them sacked. Four opposition parties -- the Democratic Party (DP), the Japanese Communist Party the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party -- pursued the ruling coalition over its nature of slackness, arrogance, and cover-ups, but they haven't got it to move anywhere. As the reporter in charge, I felt a sense of powerlessness.

    Moderator: A slump in the strength of the DP is continuing.

    Higuchi: Since Renho assumed leadership of the party, the DP has promoted itself as a "party of offering proposals," but it has still been lumped together as part of "an opposition that does nothing but criticize" and faces a tough time. Its stance of underscoring the fact that it supported 79 percent of the bills that were passed into law during the latest Diet session is questionable to me.

    Moderator: During the regular Diet session, a special bill allowing Emperor Akihito to abdicate was passed into law.

    Hiroyuki Tanaka (in charge of news on Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga): From the outset, the government's panel of experts was set on making this a one-off law applying to Emperor Akihito alone. In response, House of Representatives Speaker Tadamori Oshima and Vice-Speaker Tatsuo Kawabata pointed out that the Diet was not a subcontractor for the expert panel, and compiled what was described as "a consensus of the legislature." Top consideration was paid to the opposition parties, and the ensuing agreement between the ruling and opposition parties was a major achievement. It was an example of the Diet functioning.

    Asahi: The only time I felt the Diet was functioning was at the time of the passing of the special abdication law.

    Tanaka: During the latest Diet session, a bill promoting gender equality in Japanese politics, which the ruling and opposition parties had agreed upon, was postponed. Both the prime minister and Renho had called for the participation of women, but both figures became occupied with wrangling in politics during the final days of the Diet session. Both the ruling and opposition parties abandoned their primary role in the Diet of passing laws.

    Moderator: In various opinion polls, the Cabinet's support rate plummeted. The ruling coalition is trying to get past the criticism with new policies such as a "revolution" to cultivate human resources.

    Asahi: That's the same pattern they've used to date. There's no effective way to easily restore the support rate, but there's a feeling that if there's no one to resist the prime minister, "it will eventually work out somehow."

    Tanaka: Since the establishment of the second Abe administration, the prime minister's team is overconfident from its experience of success over a period of four and a half years. The Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs has control of the officials at government ministries and agencies, and has controlled bureaucrats through political leadership. The prime minister has said that bureaucrats don't pay special consideration to him, but this coming from the person receiving special consideration merely appears as obstinate insistence.

    The reason that Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga became so angered by the charge divulged by former education Vice Minister Kihei Maekawa (the former top bureaucrat in the ministry) over the Kake issue is probably that it looked like a "bureaucratic coup d'etat." The Kasumigaseki district (where central government organizations are located) that had been held down in the past may no longer pretend to obey the Cabinet Office.

    Mitsuda: One can see an open seam in Suga's crisis management. The public's suspicion over the misplaced sense of confidence and contempt of Abe as the sole powerful leader will probably not be as transient as the government and ruling coalition think.

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