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Abe readies now-or-never push for TPP, pension change

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, right, poses with Komeito chief Natsuo Yamaguchi.

TOKYO -- Japan's ruling party aims to pass high-priority legislation such as pension reform and ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership by mid-December in an extended Diet session, fearing this year may be the last chance to turn these measures into law.

"We need to enact pension reform during this session, whatever it takes," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told leaders of the Liberal Democratic Party on Monday. The same goes for ratifying the TPP, he said, noting the move would underscore Japan's continued support for the trade pact.

The LDP and junior coalition partner Komeito have extended the current Diet session, originally set to end Wednesday, until Dec. 14 to make time for this push.

Do what it takes

Neither of these initiatives has strong public backing. A poll conducted by The Nikkei from Friday to Sunday showed that respondents opposed the pension reform 57% to 29%. Opinion on the TPP split evenly, with 37% in favor and 37% against the trade pact.

Abe will press on nonetheless. American President-elect Donald Trump has pledged to pull the U.S. from the TPP on his first day in office, which would effectively scrap the carefully constructed free trade framework. This Diet session is Japan's last chance to ratify the pact while it remains nominally alive. The prime minister told the upper house Monday he aims to broadcast Japan's steadfast support for the deal to the world and lean heavily on the U.S. to recognize the TPP's significance.

The pension bill, too, has reached the do-or-die stage. The proposal would link payouts more closely to wage fluctuations, cutting benefits if pay falls for the working-age population to ensure the system remains solvent into the future. Opposition lawmakers are revving up attacks labeling the bill an attempt to slash pensions. Public opinion on the measure could darken further if discussions are carried over to the next session.

Komeito wants the matter settled by the end of 2016 to avoid swaying the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election next summer -- a race on par with Diet elections in terms of importance, as far as the party is concerned.

A bill paving the way for integrated resorts, including casinos, could come up as well. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga urged the ruling party to consider the bill Monday. Democratic Party lawmaker Akihisa Nagashima has called for discussion within his opposition party as well.

Supporters seek to bring the bill before a lower-house committee as soon as Wednesday. But though Komeito has consented to debate on the measure, lawmakers in the party remain on the fence about enacting it.

Prospects also are dicey for changes this session to the Japan-U.S. Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement. Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, the official in charge of the agreement, already has his hands full with the TPP.

Stall tactics

The Abe government bills itself as prioritizing economic policy, a subject of particular public concern. But the ruling coalition has had few reservations in the past about pushing through controversial national security and state-secrets legislation despite both public objections and strong resistance from opposition parties.

The cabinet's approval rating is a healthy 58%, a level the government seems to think sufficient to absorb any damage that may come of pursuing unpopular policies.

Opposition leaders are making a point of objecting to the extended Diet session. The Democratic Party "opposes the extension," Secretary-General Yoshihiko Noda told reporters Monday, calling it "a matter of principle that discussion be brought to a close within the designated legislative session." He blamed schedule overruns on the ruling coalition, citing ministerial gaffes and attempts to ram through ratification of the TPP.

Were the session to end as initially planned, Noda and other opposition leaders would lose an opportunity to take Abe and key ministers to task publicly for these matters. But standing firm against the extension lets these lawmakers draw a contrast between themselves and the LDP, which they say is working to push through a pension measure that would pose an additional burden on the elderly.

The opposition has offered no alternative to the pension-reform proposal. Instead, the plan is to push back by filing a no-confidence motion Tuesday against Yasuhisa Shiozaki, minister of health, labor and welfare, and a censure motion against Hideki Niwa, a lower-house lawmaker and head of the LDP's Health, Labor and Welfare Division.

But these tactics can go only so far. Sources in the prime minister's office have indicated the ruling coalition could even extend the Diet session once again if the opposition continues to stall the pension measure. Though many in the ruling party are leery of such an approach, opposition lawmakers are apparently growing nervous, noting a double extension could let Abe dissolve the lower house before the year ends.


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