A Showdown for Abe in Japan

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The overcast Tokyo skies that Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe returned to Monday morning from his trip to the Asia Pacific Economic Forum in Sydney were indicative of his last few weeks in office. There have been very few bright days for Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) since they lost control of the upper house of Japan's parliament to the opposition in July's elections. Since reshuffling his cabinet two weeks ago, Abe has lost four party members to scandals: his new agricultural minister (the second in a month), a deputy foreign minister, a mid-ranking parliamentarian and a newly elected member of Japan's upper house have all resigned over allegations of financial or electoral misconduct. Meanwhile, bilateral talks with Pyongyang on the abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korea, an item high on Abe's agenda, have foundered. His party faces a schism on whether to allow members expelled by his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, back into the fold. And the only popular member of his new cabinet, Yoichi Masuzoe, is stuck with the unenviable and potentially embarrassing task of chasing down social welfare agency officials suspected of stealing from the nation's pension fund.

It is in this environment that Japan's fall Diet session opened on Monday, and at the top of its to-do list is debating an unpopular anti-terrorism law that allows Japan's Self-Defense Forces to be used in support of U.S. military activity in the Middle East. The opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which wrested control of Japan's upper house from the LDP for the first time in the party's history, opposes its renewal. While it's divided on the issue, the DPJ has chosen this bill to differentiate itself from the ruling coalition in a bid to establish its credentials as more than just an upstart opposition party. For Abe, losing to the DPJ wouldn't be just another sign of poor leadership: it would mark him, the Prime Minister who campaigned on a promise to give Japan a more robust foreign policy, as a leader who allowed Japan to shrink away from the global stage. "This is a very important point for Japan-U.S. security alliance," says Etsushi Tanifuji, a political science professor at Waseda University. "Not supporting the U.S. would change Japan's diplomatic course." In Sydney on Sunday, Abe vowed he would quit if the measure didn't pass, telling reporters that he "would not cling to my job as Prime Minister" if he failed to renew the bill.

The most likely scenario, according to political analysts, is that the bill will be rejected in the DPJ-dominated upper house and reappear in front of the more powerful lower house, which can force through a renewal by overturning the upper house decision with a two-thirds majority (which the LDP and its coalition partner, the New Komeito Party, possess). "This is a normal, constitutionally stipulated legislative process," Cabinet Secretary Kaoru Yosano told reporters at a Monday press conference. "Nothing to be overly dramatic about." But if the DPJ whips up public outrage over the LDP's forceful passing of the bill, Abe may have no choice but to dissolve the lower house and call snap elections, as his predecessor Koizumi did when his prized postal privatization bill was rejected in the upper house.

Tomoaki Iwai, a political science professor at Nihon University, says the outcome will depend on the public's reaction to the bill in the coming weeks. Recent polls show that about 50% of voters want Japan's Self Defense forces pulled out of the Indian Ocean where they are currently deployed to provide refueling assistance to the U.S., while a third support the navy's role in the international fight against terrorism. "Abe wouldn't dissolve the lower house if the LDP is risking loss of both houses," he says, "nor will the DPJ demand it if they sensed that the public is getting tired of opposition stubbornly stalling the legislative process." But with half of voters currently saying they don't support the anti-terror law, it doesn't seem as if the sun will shine on Abe anytime soon.