Japan Approves Bill on Afghan War Mission

Tokyo, January 12, 2008 (The New York Times): The Japanese government rammed through a special law Friday authorizing its navy to resume a refueling mission in the Indian Ocean as part of the American-led war in Afghanistan.

In an extremely rare parliamentary move, Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda’s governing Liberal Democratic Party used its two-thirds majority in the Japanese Parliament’s lower house to override a rejection of the law by the opposition-controlled upper house. The last time a government did this was in 1951.

The refueling mission, which was suspended in November after the opposition Democratic Party gained power in the upper house last summer, is now expected to resume by the end of the month.

“That our country can participate again in the ‘war against terror’ truly has great significance,” Mr. Fukuda said in a statement.

A Japanese refueling vessel and a destroyer had operated in the Indian Ocean since 2001, supplying 500 million liters, or 132 million gallons, of fuel to warships from the United States, Britain, Pakistan and other countries. Though the mission was not considered militarily significant, it carried political significance for a country whose military activities are severely curtailed by its pacifist Constitution.

The Democratic opposition said it would endorse only missions led by the United Nations and said that the Liberal Democrats were slavishly following the United States.

The government had been reluctant to use its two-thirds majority in the lower house to pass a law rejected by the upper house, and that reluctance had contributed to the downfall of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in September.

In forcing through the legislation, Mr. Fukuda, who took over the leadership from Mr. Abe, risked a backlash from a public which has been divided over the mission. The public has grown uneasy over Japan’s increasingly close military ties to the United States and remains much more concerned about the economy and other bread-and-butter issues.

Thomas Schieffer, the United States ambassador to Japan, immediately issued a statement welcoming the law.

Mr. Fukuda’s approval ratings have fallen into the 30’s; 30 percent has traditionally been considered a dangerous threshold in Japanese politics. This is because he has been unable to pass any other legislation in Parliament since taking over as prime minister in September.

His popularity took a hit when he downplayed bookkeeping problems in the national pension system. This was the same issue that was the biggest factor behind his party’s huge loss under Mr. Abe in the upper house last summer.

The opposition Democratic Party, whose approval ratings have surpassed the governing party’s in recent polls, is expected to press with renewed vigor for a dissolution of the lower house of Parliament and a general election.

The opposition has argued that Mr. Fukuda’s party lacks a popular mandate because the last general election was held in 2005 and revolved around the single issue of postal privatization; it was in that election that Mr. Fukuda’s party gained its two-thirds majority in the lower house.

Yukio Hatoyama, the opposition party’s secretary general, said that his party enjoyed a greater popular mandate because it had won in the upper house election last summer.

“The bill that was rejected by the upper house, based on the people’s will, should have been abandoned,” Mr. Hatoyama said, condemning the governing party’s override.

Mr. Fukuda does not have to call a general election until the fall of 2009. But with the impasse in Parliament, he will likely be forced to do so and seek a popular mandate later this year.