The circumvention of Japan’s normal legislative process to avoid keeping parliament sitting at a time of image problems for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe makes clear the extent to which the administration is willing to go to protect its figurehead.
It also indicates the ruling coalition of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito is confident that opposition parties are too weak to successfully turn the scandals or the parliamentary drama into fuel for a change of government.
“Dictatorial” was how protesters outside the Diet building, gathering in their thousands to object to “the anti-conspiracy bill,” described the way the ruling camp resorted to a rarely used method of bypassing a committee vote to speed the bill’s passage into law.
With the current Diet session set to end Sunday, the enactment early last Thursday of the law criminalizing the planning of serious crimes meant the government and ruling parties could avoid an extension of the session in the middle of smoldering favoritism allegations against Abe.
At the same time, the release on Thursday of the results of a probe into the allegations, as well as an update from an ongoing government-wide inquiry into inappropriate post-retirement job placements for bureaucrats, were carefully planned to distract voters from the Diet drama and limit the damage from the bypass decision.
The law is controversial in its own right, having split public opinion in polls and attracted the concerns of a U.N. special rapporteur. With opposition parties vowing to do all they could to block it, speculation had been rife that the Diet session would be extended for 10 days or so to allow time for its enactment.
But according to parliamentary sources, the prime minister’s office and the upper echelons of the LDP had already hatched a plan by Tuesday to both railroad the conspiracy bill into law and release the results of the probes on Thursday in an effort to deal with all the inconvenient issues at once.
The plan also included a compromise in the form of a special deliberation session on Friday. According to a senior member of the LDP’s Diet affairs committee, the session gives both Komeito, whose supporters take a dim view of railroading, and the main opposition Democratic Party a chance to let off some steam.
The sources said the sense of urgency behind the committee bypass move stemmed from a rumor planted by the prime minister’s office that spread among lawmakers Wednesday night.
It was rumored that the opposition parties were going to submit a no-confidence motion against the Abe cabinet, and a House of Representatives vote to dismiss it would not take place until at least Thursday afternoon.
That delay would have meant that even after the conspiracy bill became law, lawmakers would still have to come into work on the weekend to deliberate a penal code amendment bill before the session ends on Sunday.
The suggestion to hurry up and get the conspiracy law out of the way in the early hours of Thursday worked a treat on lawmakers eager to make it home to their constituencies on the weekend.
The Democratic Party and three other opposition parties did end up submitting a no-confidence motion in the cabinet, as well as a host of other motions. Diet procedures spanned Wednesday night and the conspiracy law was finally enacted early on Thursday morning.
But not all in the ruling coalition are comfortable with this way of doing things, with a mid-ranking LDP lawmaker warning the committee bypass move risked being taken as a denial of democracy.
“There has been quite a bit of objection within the party,” the lawmaker said.
For Abe, the shrewd management of scandals offers potentially massive rewards.
With a change of government looking unlikely in the face of solid support ratings for the Abe Cabinet, he could potentially remain prime minister until late 2021 if he wins a third straight term as LDP president in a party vote in the fall of next year.
Electoral victories have given the LDP, Komeito and likeminded lawmakers the supermajority needed to formally propose an amendment to the post-World War II Japanese Constitution, which will then have to gain a majority in a national referendum.
Abe made clear last month that he aims to bring an amendment into force by 2020, suggesting the retention of the existing clauses of the war-renouncing Article 9.
The conspiracy law’s rocky enactment indicates the Abe administration is prepared to break with convention to keep intact its hopes of achieving that legacy.