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With eyes on LDP leadership race, Abe puts plan for discretionary labor bill on hold

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe displays a stern expression following a meeting with Minister of Health, Labor and Welfare Katsunobu Kato, at the prime minister's office shortly after 12 a.m. on March 1, 2018. (Mainichi)

The government has decided to remove stipulations on the expansion of the so-called discretionary labor system from a labor reform bill.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had refused calls for a renewed investigation into the discretionary labor system and withdrawal of the bill, seeking to submit it to the Diet in its full form during the current session. However, the discovery of flawed data in a related survey conducted by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has created serious problems for the government. In the Diet on Feb. 28 it was suddenly announced that a survey on the "actual situation" would be carried out, and the government bowed to pressure to delete the parts of the bill relating to the discretionary labor system.

Abe looked solemn as he appeared before reporters at the prime minister's office in the predawn hours of March 1.

"I want to carry out labor reform during the current Diet session. With regard to this, data (from the labor ministry) on the discretionary labor system resulted in everyone harboring doubts," he said. He indicated that efforts would be made to grasp the actual situation regarding the discretionary labor system. Previously, Abe had repeatedly stated that he had no intention of complying with opposition lawmakers' demands and conducting a renewed survey on the system following the discovery of the flawed data. However after other members of the ruling coalition conveyed strong reservations, Abe was forced to back down and make concessions.

On Feb. 27, Abe met with LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai and other officials. Nikai, who had been forced into a long meeting with opposition lawmakers the previous day over the flawed data and work-style reform legislation, conveyed the harsh public sentiment and the situation in the Diet. An aide to Abe commented that views had spread within the prime minister's office that "opposition parties, which were fractured, have been given an excuse to band together."

If the work reform bill was rammed through the Diet as it was, including expansion of the discretionary labor system, then public criticism would spread, which could unsettle Abe's strategy of seeking to be re-elected to a third term as leader of the LDP based on his achievements. A senior official with the prime minister's office, who held a strong sense of apprehension about the situation, told Abe that he had to manage Diet affairs "carefully and peacefully." Abe in return expressed his understanding.

The proposition of dropping stipulations on the discretionary labor system from the work style reform bill had already strengthened within the ruling coalition under attacks from opposition legislators. On Feb. 27, the Health, Labor and Welfare Division of the Liberal Democratic Party became entangled in apprehensions that the problems could become reminiscent of the loss of massive amounts of pension funds that triggered the downfall of Abe's inaugural administration.

Noritoshi Ishida, chairman of the Policy Research Council of the LDP's junior coalition partner Komeito, stressed in a news conference on Feb. 28 that the submission of the work style reform bill should not be delayed, and touched on the possibility of removing the stipulations on the discretionary labor system from the bill, stating, "If the data problem is going to take a long time, then we have to consider various options." This put further pressure on the prime minister's office.

Removing the stipulations deals a blow to Abe's management of his administration, and weakens his unifying force. However, Abe is believed to have come to the decision to brace for a certain level of damage and handle the issue while time remains before the next party leadership election. Komeito Secretary-General Yoshihisa Inoue told reporters late on Feb. 28 that this was a "major decision."

However, there had already been some opposition to the work-style reform bill voiced within the LDP, and one party source commented that opinions that the bill should now be scrapped altogether would probably surface. The government is set to proceed with a probe into the actual state of the discretionary labor system, and submit a bill covering which areas to expand during an extraordinary session of the Diet in autumn or later, but because of the flawed data, doubts about the whole discretionary labor system have spread within society, and there are no immediate prospects of this happening.

As for how to grasp the actual situation regarding the discretionary labor system, Abe on Feb. 28 suggested that he would leave the job entirely up to Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Katsunobu Kato. This was news to one perplexed official from the ministry, who asked, "What are we supposed to do?"

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