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Politics

Suga spars with Japan's opposition in crucial hurdle

Approval rating hinges on how public views budget committee questioning

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga at the lower house budget committee. (Photo by Uichiro Kasai)

TOKYO -- Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has taken on his first faceoff with the opposition in the lower house budget committee, a milestone after which public approval for new Japanese leaders typically drops.

Wednesday marked the end of two days of budget committee sessions, which, despite the name, serve as a venue for lawmakers to grill the prime minister on a broad range of topics.

The approval rating for new cabinets has dropped by an average of 7 percentage points after their first encounter with the opposition in the budget committee, Nikkei poll data going back to 1996 shows.

Suga took office in September with the third-highest level of public support for any new Japanese government -- 74%. Though the cabinet's approval rating fell to 63% October, it remains high in historical terms.

Suga made no obvious gaffes in his budget committee remarks. Among the questions he faced was why his government rejected several candidates for the Science Council of Japan. Past governments simply rubber-stamped such nominations out of deference to the advisory body's independence.

"I would like to refrain from answering questions on reasons for individual appointments," Suga said Wednesday, reading from prepared responses in the same way he had the day before.

Yukio Edano, leader of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, blasted the prime minister's repetition.

"If you are just going to go on like a broken record, you should speak in your own words," Edano said.

During the two-day session, Suga's government elaborated on the digitalization project, lower cellular fees and the goal to achieve net-zero carbon output. Officials also touched on the coronavirus response and reviving the economy.

The budget committees in the upper and lower houses of the parliament represent golden opportunities for opposition members to cross-examine the prime minister. The questioner has the right to pick the topic of the queries, which often puts the prime minister on the defensive.

As a result, only two prime ministers since 1996 have added to their cabinet's approval ratings following their initial question-and-answer sessions: Junichiro Koizumi and Suga's predecessor, Shinzo Abe, during his second term.

Koizumi came into office as a political maverick who pledged to "destroy" the ruling Liberal Democratic Party if it continues to stand against reform. He won the LDP leadership in a 2001 landslide.

Backed by an 80% approval rating for his cabinet, Koizumi arrived at his first budget committee hearing expressing ideas on shifting funds allocated for road construction to general expenses, and on privatizing the Japan Post. The subsequent poll showed an 85% approval rating, the highest among available records dating back to 1987.

Abe launched his second tenure as prime minister in 2013 under the banner of his trademark Abenomics policy to lift the country out of deflation. Significantly, this term came after the LDP defeated the Democratic Party of Japan at the polls, meaning the newly demoted opposition party was in a poor position to question the ruling government's agenda.

After the budget committee hearings, Abe's cabinet boosted the approval rating by 2 points to 70%.

The ability of Koizumi and Abe to start off on a positive note appears to be the major factor for their lengthy terms in office. Now Suga faces the same potentially fateful moment.

"It all comes down to what happens after the budget committee," said an LDP figure with experience as the party's secretary-general. "If the approval rating continuously drops, then the option of dissolving the lower chamber and calling a general election at the beginning of next year may start to look realistic."

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