Japan PM's Anti-Terrorism Troubles

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In September, just three days after vowing to quit if he couldn't force the passage of a controversial anti-terror law, Japan's then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stood bleary-eyed in front of cameras and announced that he would be stepping aside for a more capable negotiator, citing ill health. Abe was called a coward and worse for dumping his responsibilities, but one month later, his successor Yasuo Fukuda is finding it difficult to even get to the negotiating table. With the controversial bill up for debate this week, the fledgling PM has been beset by rumors of Defense Ministry cover-ups and allegations of collusion over defense contracts.

The innocuous-seeming law in question appears an unlikely candidate to cause the downfall of one Prime Minister and test the capabilities of another. The Anti-Terrorism Special Measures Law allows Japan's Self Defense Forces to assist the United Nations-chartered international mission in Afghanistan — assistance that mostly takes the form of refueling operations for coalition ships in the Indian Ocean. Since the law first passed in 2001, it has been reapproved every year or two without comment — until now. In July, public dissatisfaction with Abe's administration helped hand the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) its biggest electoral defeat of the postwar era. The LDP lost control of the Japanese Diet's Upper House to the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which will move to veto the law's renewal when it runs out next week.

On Tuesday, the LDP introduced a new version of the bill, slightly altered in hopes it would better suit the DPJ's palate. But DPJ lawmakers, smelling blood, have been going after Fukuda over the bill as soon as he came to office last month — a sign that the opposition has no intention of being pacified.

First, they charged that Japan's tankers were helping to fuel U.S. ships destined not for Afghanistan but for Iraq — a conflict not chartered by the U.N. and thus in violation of Japan's pacifist constitution. Last month, it was revealed that Defense Ministry officials had misreported the amount of fuel provided to a U.S. tanker in 2003 by 600,000 gallons, and had covered up the mistake. The final blow came last week when administrative vice minister Takemasa Moriya was accused of close links with a defense contractor in violation of the ministry's code of ethics.

With a two-thirds majority in the more powerful lower house, Fukuda can override the DPJ's opposition to the terror bill. But equipped with so much ammunition, the DPJ seems determined to prolong the debate as long as possible, which will likely force the temporary withdrawal of Japan's Maritime Forces from the Indian Ocean next month when the law expires — a major embarrassment for Fukuda. By the same token, the LDP has to tread carefully to avoid giving the impression it is forcing through an unpopular bill, considering widespread dissatisfaction with the party among voters. As LDP general secretary Bunmei Ibuki said in a TV appearance over the weekend, "Whether we reapprove in the lower house or scrap it this year and resubmit in next year's session will depend on the public's opinion."

But the public may not care as much about the terror law as much as Japan's feuding politicians do. According to a recent poll, 48% approve of the refueling activities, while 43% oppose them — a number virtually unchanged since Abe was forced out over the issue last month. It's not exactly the public uproar that the DPJ is hoping for, but nor is it enough support for the LDP to comfortably ram the law through.

For Fukuda, a consensus-builder who the LDP expected would help it regain the voter confidence lost by Abe's scandal-ridden administration, the ruckus over the law is an unwelcome surprise: The allegations against the Defense Ministry could potentially discredit him. And the Prime Minister isn't hiding his displeasure. Fukuda called the charges of a cover-up over the fuel misreport "an unbelievable act" when talking to reporters Monday. "They need to be more careful," he snapped, "otherwise the suspicions are carried over to me." His predecessor could hardly agree more.