The main opposition Liberal Democratic Party, clearly frustrated over Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s wavering ways, has resorted to threats to force decisive action on legislation to raise the consumption tax rate.
But the prime minister appears intent on continuing his balancing act, reaching out to opposition parties to raise the tax rate while seeking to unite the ruling Democratic Party of Japan by extending a conciliatory hand to the anti-tax hike group led by political heavyweight Ichiro Ozawa.
The LDP’s pressure on Noda will likely increase after it was announced on May 22 that the prime minister and Ozawa will hold a meeting as early as next week.
On May 21, at the start of LDP questioning in the Lower House special committee deliberating the consumption tax legislation, the LDP told Noda that he must soon take decisive action if he wants the opposition’s cooperation to pass the tax hike legislation.
"Nothing will move forward without a decision by you," LDP Secretary-General Nobuteru Ishihara said.
The LDP, in principle, supports Noda’s proposal to raise the consumption tax rate from the current 5 percent to 10 percent by 2015. But the opposition party is also trying to use the issue to improve the LDP’s standing while forcing Noda into dissolving the Lower House and calling a snap election.
Bunmei Ibuki, another LDP lawmaker who questioned Noda in the special committee, brought up the censure motions passed in the Upper House against Defense Minister Naoki Tanaka and land minister Takeshi Maeda.
"Whether to accept a dismissal or not is all up to a decision by you," Ibuki said to Noda.
The increased pressure on Noda shows that LDP leaders understand that things are not going their way.
Noda has indicated that he wants the LDP’s cooperation, but he has shown no signs of accepting a proposal by LDP President Sadakazu Tanigaki to discuss a schedule for dissolving the Lower House and holding a snap election.
Tanigaki also indicated he would only meet with Noda after the two Cabinet ministers were dismissed.
However, at the May 21 special committee session, Noda said about Tanaka and Maeda, "I want them to fulfill their responsibilities."
Perhaps the biggest hurdle for LDP officials in getting Noda to do their bidding is DPJ Secretary-General Azuma Koshiishi, who is opposed to both an early Lower House dissolution and the dismissal of the two Cabinet ministers, who are both from the same Upper House as Koshiishi.
A DPJ executive earlier told Noda to let go of the two Cabinet ministers, but Noda reportedly said, "I believe that is the thing to do, but Koshiishi will not budge."
Koshiishi, who is close to Ozawa, has called for greater party unity and has not hidden his displeasure at any attempt by the prime minister to seek cooperation with the opposition parties.
The DPJ secretary-general on May 22 talked with Ozawa for about 30 minutes and asked him to meet with Noda.
Koshiishi later told reporters that Ozawa had agreed to the request and that the meeting could be held as early as next week. Koshiishi said he would also attend that meeting.
Koshiishi has established greater control over the DPJ, leading the way for restoring Ozawa's party privileges after he was acquitted by the Tokyo District Court in late April on charges of falsifying political fund reports.
An associate of Noda warned the prime minister to avoid a direct confrontation with Koshiishi, saying "Management of the administration would go nowhere" in such a situation.
But how far is Noda willing to go to appease Ozawa, who clearly opposes the tax hike bill?
Tanigaki put the choice before Noda in a May 13 LDP gathering.
"He can either bend to the wishes of Ozawa and delay a vote on the consumption tax legislation or pass the bills by cooperating with opposition parties," Tanigaki said.
Frustrated LDP officials are even threatening Noda if he remains ambiguous.
With the current Diet session scheduled to end on June 21, Ishihara indicated the LDP would submit a no-confidence motion against the Noda Cabinet if a Diet vote on the tax legislation was delayed.
Even members of the DPJ are beginning to express doubts about whether Noda really intends to stake his political life on the consumption tax legislation, as he has repeatedly said.
A source in the prime minister's office described the dilemma facing Noda: "If he should make a move to gain the cooperation of the LDP, that will lead to strong resistance from within the DPJ. He faces the task of finding an answer to an unsolvable equation."
There are no specific plans to hold Diet deliberations on the consumption tax legislation beyond May 25. After June 1, Noda will face a similar tug-of-war both within the DPJ and with the opposition parties over how long to extend the Diet session to allow for a vote on the legislation.
There are also no signs that Noda can accomplish anything in his talks with Ozawa.
An associate to Noda said, "While he will seek cooperation to save face for Koshiishi, the discussion will not turn to giving Ozawa any kind of party post or other concession."
Allies to Ozawa also were pessimistic.
"What we will request is for work to start over on the consumption tax legislation," one of them said.
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