Embattled Japanese PM takes a political gamble
TOKYO - Taking what is widely seen as a highly risky political gamble, embattled Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has apparently staked his job on extending the nation's domestically unpopular support of US-led anti-terrorism operations in Afghanistan, which consists mainly of providing a navy oiler to refuel coalition warships in the Indian Ocean.
The 52-year-old prime minister's bombshell remark, made on the eve of the opening of a key two-month parliamentary session, has raised the eyebrows of many, because he has so far resisted strong calls for his resignation, not only from the opposition but also from the public, after his coalition's devastating electoral drubbing in late July.
Although pubic support for the Abe cabinet recovered a little immediately after the August 27 cabinet reshuffle and leadership changes in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), it has plummeted again to about 30%, according to opinion polls. One poll shows that half of Japanese want Abe to resign either immediately or by the end of this year, regardless of whether the Diet (parliament) extends the refueling program.
In a desperate bid to reverse his own and his LDP's sagging popularity, Abe reshuffled his cabinet and party leadership late last month, tapping veteran lawmakers for key posts. But only a week later, new agriculture, forestry and fisheries minister Takehiko Endo resigned to take responsibility for subsidies illegally received by a farmers' mutual-aid association headed by Endo himself, dealing another serious blow to Abe.
While some political pundits say Abe is seeking to enlist support - or at least understanding - from the public as well as the opposition camp on his policy of continuing support of US-led operations in Afghanistan, others say his gamble will backfire, as it has given the opposition camp a new burst of energy.
"I have no intention of clinging to my duties" as prime minister if the mission is not extended beyond the November 1 legal deadline, Abe said in a press conference in Sydney, where he attended an annual summit of top leaders from the 21 member economies of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum.
Abe called for talks with Ichiro Ozawa, president of the biggest opposition Democratic Party of Japan, "as soon as possible", saying he intends to "stake my job and deal with the issue so as to obtain the understanding of the opposition parties led by the DPJ".
Abe's remarks came a day after a one-on-one meeting with US President George W Bush on the sidelines of the APEC summit. Bush said, "Japan provides a vital service not only to the United States but to other countries as a refueler of our ships." Abe said he and Bush agreed on the importance of continuing the mission as international society needs to "stay united" in the fight against terrorism.
In a policy address opening a 62-day extraordinary session of the Diet on Monday, Abe reiterated his strong determination to continue the refueling mission, noting that ending it would be an abandonment of Japan's 'international responsibilities'.
"The Self-Defense Forces members who carry out their tasks dutifully under the scorching heat in the Indian Ocean, that is the kind of international contribution that the world expects from Japan," Abe said of the SDF deployment that is certain to dominate discussions during the Diet session, which will run through November 10.
"Is it really okay to pull out now and abandon our international responsibility?" he asked while reminding the Diet that 24 Japanese nationals were among those who died in the September 11, 2001, attacks in the US. "I ask for your understanding so that the activities can be continued.
"I hope to deepen constructive discussions with the opposition parties and will do my best to reach each [policy] conclusion carefully and courteously," Abe said, in clear contrast to the ruling bloc's repeated passage of bills in the ordinary Diet session earlier this year based on its then-overwhelming strength without having to make compromises with the opposition.
At issue is the Anti-Terrorism Special Measures Law enacted only weeks after the September 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and the Pentagon. Under the law, Japan's Maritime SDF vessels have been deployed in the Indian Ocean since November 2001 to refuel US-led coalition warships supporting anti-terrorism operations in Afghanistan.
Under then-prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, one of Bush's staunchest allies in the "war on terrorism" and the Iraq war, the LDP-led coalition pushed through another special law in July 2003 enabling non-combat troops to be deployed in southern Iraq to assist in US-led reconstruction efforts.
Although the Ground SDF troops were withdrawn from Iraq in the summer of last year, members of the Air SDF are still deployed in Kuwait on an airlift mission for Iraq. The special law on Iraq, which was originally effective for four years, was extended for two years in late June, when the LDP-led coalition still controlled both houses of the Diet.
These overseas troop dispatches are consistent with Abe's push for a more assertive foreign policy and a greater military role on the global stage and for revising the postwar pacifist constitution to make such commitments easier.
But the government also sees troop deployments in the Indian Ocean and Iraq more as an inevitable price the nation has to pay for its strengthened security alliance with the US, especially at a time when it faces a nuclear and missile threat from neighboring North Korea.
There is strong concern in Tokyo that the Japan-US alliance could suffer seriously if Japan's refueling mission in the Indian Ocean is terminated. Already differences have become apparent between Tokyo and Washington in recent months over how to deal with North Korea, with the former basically maintaining a hard line while the latter is clearly shifting its approach from confrontation to dialogue.
The DPJ has voted against each of the three extensions of the Anti-Terrorism Special Measures Law - in 2003, 2005 and last year - but did not have the votes to kill them. Now, because of its huge electoral triumph this summer, it has the votes potentially to defeat an extension bill in the House of Councilors.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Kaoru Yosano, the top government spokesman, indicated on Tuesday that the ruling coalition plans to submit to the Diet as early as this month a bill for a new law allowing the nation to continue the refueling mission. The new law is expected to be limited to refueling and supplying water to US-led coalition vessels in the Indian Ocean. For its part, the DPJ is poised to submit its own bill to support international operations in Afghanistan mainly through humanitarian aid.
Abe's bombshell "stake my job" remark has left not a few people in political circles, even within his LDP, skeptical about his real intentions, with some even guessing that he merely expressed a strong resolve to continue the refueling mission in the Indian Ocean.
There is good reason for some to find it difficult to take Abe's words at face value. In the run-up to the July 29 Upper House election, Abe, who doubles as LDP president, said, "Which one of us, Mr Ozawa or myself, is more suitable as a prime minister? I ask the nation to make the judgment."
Despite the public negative judgment on his party, Abe is still in office.
Hisane Masaki is a Tokyo-based journalist, commentator and scholar on international politics and economy. Masaki's e-mail address is [email protected].
Hisane Masaki is WSN Editor Japan.