Snap election puts key policies on hold

November 15, 2012


Economic recovery, help for disaster survivors, and whether Japan goes nuclear-free are some of the policies and debates that have been shelved by the government's decision to call a snap election.

The government of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda had earlier described such issues as high priority and planned to address them by year's end. But there is now too little time left to present a meaningful road map to voters before the election scheduled for Dec. 16.

One crucial question is that of nuclear power: both whether to restart idled reactors at a time of continued contamination from the Fukushima No. 1 plant, and the longer-term debate about whether--and how--Japan should pull the plug on that energy source altogether.

The Noda administration aims to abandon nuclear power generation by 2039, a goal set in September under its Innovative Strategy for Energy and the Environment.

But the ambition of going nuclear-free has yet to become binding; it needs to be written into the government's Basic Energy Plan, which serves as Japan's mid-to long-term legal road map for the ratio of nuclear, thermal, and renewable sources for electricity generation.

At a Nov. 14 meeting of the Fundamental Issues Subcommittee of the Advisory Committee for Natural Resources and Energy, members were divided over whether to abandon nuclear power.

The basic committee, a panel of experts acting for the minister of economy, trade and industry, is tasked with outlining future energy policy--something the government planned to use in compiling its new energy plan.

Industry minister Yukio Edano indicated at the meeting that the new energy strategy should include the abolition of nuclear power.

But there may be insufficient time for subcommittee members to reach consensus now that Noda has announced he will dissolve the Lower House.

Ministry officials are skeptical about the wisdom of rushing to write the new energy plan.

The main opposition Liberal Democratic Party criticizes the Noda administration's zero-nuclear-power policy as "unrealistic."

"If the LDP returns to power, a change in the energy policy will be unavoidable," a senior ministry official said.

The policy's unclear future is also having an effect on the Environment Ministry.

The ministry was expected to review by year-end Japan's target to cut greenhouse-gas emissions by 25 percent in 2020, compared with 1990 levels, a target based on the new plan.

But it cannot draw up a definite chart of how to tackle global warming while the Noda administration's pledge to abandon nuclear power remains in limbo.

Still, the ruling Democratic Party of Japan is trying to appeal to voters with its goal of reducing reliance on nuclear power, just as it hopes its disaster recovery policies since March 2011 have met with approval.

It is also seeking to lure votes with the possibility of pushing Japan into the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement.

The LDP is gearing up to capitalize on the demise of the ruling party. Shinzo Abe, former prime minister and the current LDP president, is selling a package of renewal under an attractive slogan: the "rebirth" of Japan's economy, education and diplomacy.

But parties remain sharply divided over nuclear policy. The People's Life First Party, headed by former DPJ President Ichiro Ozawa, the Japanese Communist Party, Your Party, and the Social Democratic Party are all pushing for a shift away from nuclear power.

But the LDP argues it would be irresponsible to force Japan to manage without nuclear energy.

Voters are likely to be divided over something else, too. The consumption tax hike, passed in the Diet this summer, will increase the rate from the current 5 percent to 8 percent by 2014 and 10 percent a year later.

Aware of a likely backlash, the DPJ, the LDP and its small ally New Komeito--the three parties that pushed for the raise--are trying to appease voters with measures aimed at easing the pain of the additional tax burden.

The DPJ is proposing measures to help low-income households after the tax rate is raised, while the LDP wants the hike to happen only after Japan overcomes deflation. New Komeito is proposing new, lower taxes for daily necessities.

But most other parties are against increasing the consumption tax altogether.

The Japan Restoration Party, a new party led by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, and the Sunrise Party, co-led by former Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, are considering forming a third force to counter both the DPJ and the LDP, with a campaign pledge to overhaul the governing system by reducing the clout of bureaucrats in setting policy.

(This article is based on reports by Tetsu Kobayashi and Mari Fujisaki.)

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