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Japan's 'Gasoline Diet' in Full Swing
[Analysis] Opposition DPJ puts pressure on PM Fukuda for early general election
Hisane Masaki (hmasaki)     Print Article 
Published 2008-01-28 04:12 (KST)   

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Amid spikes in oil prices and growing concerns about global warming, the fate of the temporary higher gasoline tax, which is to expire at the end of March, has emerged as the biggest issue in the current ordinary session of the Diet, Japan's parliament, which convened on Jan. 18.

In a policy speech delivered to launch the 150-day ordinary Diet session, Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda stressed the need to retain the hikes in the gasoline and other road-related taxes in order to maintain and repair roads, secure good access to emergency hospitals and take measures against urban traffic congestion.

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In the speech, the 71-year-old premier also emphasized the need for Japan, as host to the July Group of Eight summit in Hokkaido, to play a leading role in global environmental issues. He vowed to turn Japan into a "low-carbon society" and stressed the importance of developing innovative technologies to combat global warming. The premier also said that Japan must first achieve the Kyoto Protocol goal of slashing its annual greenhouse gas emissions by 6 percent of its 1990 level on average between 2008 and 2012.

Meanwhile, the biggest opposition Democratic Party of Japan is digging in its heels in the showdown over the gasoline tax issue. Dubbing the current ordinary Diet session the "Gasoline Diet," the opposition party looks firmly determined to drive the Fukuda administration into a corner. DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa said at a party convention on Jan. 16, "Now, when price hikes in gasoline and kerosene are directly affecting people's lives, we will work in the Diet to abolish the temporary higher rate for the gasoline tax and show the results to the public. We have to accomplish a price decrease of 25 yen per liter," he said.

During Diet interpellations on Jan. 21, DPJ secretary general Yukio Hatoyama also strongly demanded the provisional rate of the gasoline tax be eliminated, saying it had been introduced 34 years ago and now works on behalf of a number of vested interests. But the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's secretary general Bunmei Ibuki lambasted the DPJ during the same Diet session, saying the biggest opposition party does not have a clear plan to compensate for a shortfall in tax revenue for the central and local governments that would result from the abolition of the provisional higher gasoline tax rate.

A government bill to extend the temporary higher rates for gasoline and other road-related taxes was submitted to the current Diet session last Wednesday. If the bill fails to pass parliament before the end of March, the temporary higher tax rates will expire. The LDP-led ruling camp wants to maintain the provisionally higher tax rates for another 10 years, while the DPJ seeks to lower the tax rates to their original levels.

Finance Minister Fukushiro Nukaga warned last Wednesday that if the bill fails to clear the Diet by the end of March, it will cause "serious negative effects on people's lives."

In addition to the gasoline and other road-related taxes, the tax reform bill includes measures that the DPJ feels will be difficult to oppose, such as tax relief measures for small and mid-size businesses. In a strategy aimed at putting pressure on the DPJ, the government and ruling coalition defied the DPJ demand that a bill to maintain the temporary higher gasoline tax rate be submitted separately from the tax reform bill.

Even if the opposition-controlled Upper House votes down the bill, the ruling coalition-dominated Lower House can override the decision on the strength of the LDP-led coalition's two-thirds majority.

Under Article 59 of the constitution, a bill can be sent back to the Lower House for a second vote if the Upper House votes it down or holds off on taking a vote on it within 60 days of receiving it. The bill will become law if passed in the second vote with the support of a two-thirds majority.

The ruling camp used the rarely implemented constitutional power in the extraordinary Diet session that closed on Jan. 15 to enact a controversial bill to resume Japan's refueling mission in the Indian Ocean in support of the United States-led antiterrorism operations in Afghanistan.

To actually resume the refueling mission, which has been suspended since Nov. 1 of last year, as early as mid-February, a Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer left last Thursday for the Indian Ocean and a support vessel also departed last Friday.

But if the opposition camp drags its feet and refuses to agree on putting the tax bill to a vote in the Upper House by the end of March, the temporary higher gasoline and other tax rates will be scrapped, at least temporarily.

By taking advantage of the gasoline issue, the DPJ, emboldened by opinion polls showing that a majority of Japanese people favor the abolition of the provisional higher gasoline tax rate, hopes to eventually force Fukuda to dissolve the Lower House and call a snap election.

The DPJ threatens to submit a censure motion against Fukuda if the ruling coalition tries to railroad through the bill to maintain the provisional higher gasoline tax rate. "Should the ruling camp make light of us again during the ordinary Diet session, we are prepared even to submit [to the Upper House] a censure motion against the prime minister," the DPJ's Upper House leader Azuma Koshiishi said on Tuesday.

Such a censure motion in the Upper House would be non-binding, unlike a no-confidence motion in the Lower House. Still, the possibility of a censure motion against Fukuda in the Upper House leading to the prime minister's dissolution of the Lower House for a general election cannot be ruled out. Fukuda himself has strongly indicated his intention to hold off dissolving the Lower House for a general election at least until after the G-8 summit in Hokkaido in early July.

The situation will almost certainly get worse for the ruling coalition. Even if it manages to keep power in the next general election, it will most likely lose the power to resort to the legislative procedure permitted under Article 59 of the constitution. The LDP and New Komeito, a party backed by lay Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai, will most likely lose a two-thirds majority in the Lower House, which it had gained by scoring a landslide victory in the last general election, held in September 2005 under the highly popular then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
Hisane Masaki is a Tokyo-based journalist, commentator and scholar on international politics and economy. This is the slightly updated second part of an article that originally appeared on Asia Times on Jan. 25.
©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Hisane Masaki

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