Japan's Lower House passes security bills amid protests

Jul 16, 2015 12:00 AM

Tens of thousands of angry voters in the streets. Opinion polls recording deep-seated public unease.

The cause: a pair of security reform bills that will turn the nation’s retiring Self-Defense Forces into a more proactive fighting unit, and the manner in which the government is pursuing that change.

On Thursday the ruling camp bulldozed the bills through a plenary session of the Lower House and immediately sent them to the Upper House.

The question on many people’s lips: Why is Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in such a hurry?

Abe, many political analysts say, may be sure of one thing: The political environment will only worsen if he takes his time over the legislation.

He is set to face a number of difficult political events this summer, each of which is likely to further eat away at his already declining popularity among voters.

Those events include the planned reactivation of the Sendai nuclear reactor in Kagoshima Prefecture, Abe’s release of a statement marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and the possible conclusion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade talks.

“The Upper House schedule is so tight. We have so many things on the agenda,” complained a high-ranking official close to Abe recently.

Given that the current Diet session would likely be devoted to those political events, only about 24 days will effectively be left for deliberations on the security bills in the Upper House, the official said.

“First, opposition parties are likely to ‘go to sleep’ so the Diet will be unable to hold deliberations for 10 days or so,” the official said, referring to a likely boycott by the opposition bloc.

The ruling bloc will have no choice but to agree to hold special intensive sessions at the Upper House for each political event as it arises this summer, which will leave fewer hours for deliberations on the security bills, the official said.

Still, Thursday’s passage of the bills will leave more than 60 days before the end of the current Diet session on Sept. 27 — a period that all but guarantees their enactment because bills can be returned to the Lower House if the Upper House fails to vote on them within 60 days. And controlling more than two-thirds of the Lower House the ruling coalition can then secure passage in short order.

For the time being, Abe is faced with few developments that might boost his approval rating.

Many voters are frustrated over the government’s extravagant plan for the costly — and initially misrepresented — new National Stadium for the 2020 Olympics. The estimated cost surged from ¥130 billion to ¥252 billion without explanation.

Following the passage of the security bills through the Lower House, Abe reiterated Thursday the necessity of enacting the legislation in the current Diet session. “The security environment surrounding Japan has become more severe. These bills are absolutely necessary to protect the lives of citizens and to prevent war,” Abe told reporters.

Democratic Party of Japan President Katsuya Okada told DPJ lawmakers that it is their responsibility to translate the public’s concern into action.

“Debate will kick off at the Upper House and I believe it will be a long debate,” Okada told DPJ members following the plenary session. “Let’s gain more support from the public and drive (the ruling camp) to scrap the bills.”

One of the two security bills will establish a new permanent law to allow the SDF to provide logistic support for a foreign military engaging in U.N.-backed operations, while the second will amend 10 security-related laws and remove various restrictions on the SDF’s operations.

The latter bill would allow Japan to use the right of collective self-defense as defined under the United Nations charter, or the right to use force to aid an ally under attack even if Japan itself is not.

The government had long maintained that the use of the right was banned under the postwar pacifist Constitution. But last year, Abe adopted a new reading of the Constitution and submitted the two bills to the Diet. Constitutional scholars have said the reinterpretation is unconstitutional.

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