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Omicron threatens to blunt Kishida’s momentum as parliament session begins



The opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan last week rolled out a new leadership lineup, determined to take on the Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito ruling bloc with spirited discussions about the government’s latest stimulus package and the supplementary budget that will fund it.


The anticipated grilling from the largest opposition party would have most likely been among the least of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s immediate concerns in an extraordinary parliamentary session set to kick off Monday.


But then, the omicron coronavirus variant emerged.


Omicron has thrown a wrench into Kishida’s plans, potentially emboldening the opposition to attack his administration over its confusing implementation of entry restrictions — strict new rules that appeared to at one point even ban some Japanese citizens from returning to the country.


The prime minister, who led his party to a resounding victory in October’s general election, fears the omicron variant could sap his administration’s hard-won momentum. Despite a dearth of information on the variant’s severity and how well vaccines work against it, Kishida announced tougher border control measures in rapid succession, restricting the entry of new foreign visitors and even foreign residents returning from certain countries — preferring to face criticism for overreacting rather than underreacting.


The success of the two-week parliamentary session will primarily rest on how the omicron situation develops as well as the larger trend for nationwide COVID-19 cases, which have been kept relatively low compared with other major countries. It will also be a crucial period for the prime minister to strategize and demonstrate the ruling coalition’s level of commitment to cooperating with the right-leaning opposition Nippon Ishin no Kai and the centrist Democratic Party for the People.


Kishida’s confidence had been buoyed by the LDP’s better-than-expected election results, which saw the party secure enough seats to pass bills without impediments from the opposition.


After being reappointed prime minister in early November, Kishida has already accelerated key projects, especially his “new capitalism” push to boost the middle class. He has also sped up the strengthening of Japan’s economic security and begun preparing for another surge in coronavirus cases.


Meanwhile, the CDP — despite being the largest opposition party — saw its brand tarnished after its close cooperation in the general election with the Japanese Communist Party failed to produce results.


The jam-packed extraordinary session, which runs through Dec. 21, will launch with Kishida’s policy speech in the parliament’s chambers, followed by questions from party representatives and debates at budget committees, where lawmakers will discuss a record ¥36 trillion supplementary budget for fiscal 2021.


With the opposition party in disarray, Kishida, preferring to avoid the confrontational approach taken by his two immediate predecessors, had been expecting the extraordinary parliamentary session to be a less bumpy ride.


Coronavirus response

Then, news of omicron being detected in southern African countries began making headlines.


Following those reports, Kishida introduced tightened border controls that Tokyo had begun to dial back. On Nov. 26, the central government required travelers from South Africa and nearby countries to quarantine for 10 days in government-designated facilities upon their arrival.

Just three days later, it declared Japan would ban new entries into the country. The government further reinforced measures on Wednesday, announcing that even returning foreign residents from certain countries would not be admitted into Japan.


Kishida’s aggressive countermeasures to prevent the virus from creeping into the country derived from a sense of crisis and his focus on preparing for a worst-case scenario, a senior administration official said. He made the moves even with the risk that some of his actions would be chided as too cautionary, a criticism levied by some business groups, the official added.


Kishida has resolved not to make the same mistakes as his predecessor, Yoshihide Suga. The former prime minister came under intense fire even from fellow ruling party lawmakers for not closing the border soon enough when the delta variant was spreading rapidly in India and other countries. Suga saw his approval ratings falter whenever new daily reported cases surged, a phenomenon Kishida has been eager to avoid.


But the latest measures might have gone too far, raising doubts about the administration’s ability to coordinate among various government agencies.


The transportation ministry on Monday requested that airlines halt inbound flight bookings, a drastic action that would have potentially led to a legal controversy since the request would not allow Japanese citizens to return to their homeland. Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno, the government’s top spokesman, rescinded the request Thursday morning.


The transportation ministry’s initial move, which Kishida was made aware of Wednesday night through his secretary, underscored the administration’s failure to coordinate on critical policies related to public health and border control. One senior administration official conceded that interagency communication must be improved.


Although some opposition lawmakers may see the Kishida administration’s missteps as an opportunity to paint its pandemic response as troubling, the CDP might be tempted to tone down any immediate criticism of the government.


Some voters’ disapproval of the CDP — and its election drubbing — has stemmed from the view that the party has been obsessed with lambasting the government while offering few alternative policy solutions.


Party’s cooperation

Aside from the pandemic, Kishida, who serves concurrently as LDP president, is tasked with navigating the party’s cooperation with opposition forces that the ruling party could work with throughout the parliamentary session, namely Nippon Ishin and the DPP.


Further cooperation with those parties would be crucial for Kishida, who leads a relatively liberal faction within the LDP, to maintain support from right-leaning conservative lawmakers.


Nippon Ishin, which won 41 seats in the general election, is attempting to craft a stronger presence in parliament ahead of next year’s Upper House election. It is looking to cooperate with the DPP, which gained three additional seats in the election, giving it 11. Together, the parties have enough seats to top a minimum threshold of 50 for submitting legislation that requires a budget.


Nippon Ishin’s desire for attention was visible even before the parliament session was set to begin. It was the first party to announce a plan that would require its lawmakers to donate their October allowances, which are provided to each parliamentary member to cover transportation, lodging and other costs separate from their salaries. Each member receives ¥1 million per month.


The party has taken issue with the payments, since even lawmakers who won seats and were in office for a single day were entitled to receive the full month’s allowance. Other parties soon joined the fracas, announcing their own plans to donate the allowances.


Nippon Ishin initially appeared to have agreed to submit an amendment bill jointly with the LDP and the CDP to this extraordinary session that would change the allowance so that it be paid on a per diem basis. At the last minute, however, the LDP abandoned the goal of passing the amendment this session.


Still, Nippon Ishin’s larger presence appears to be welcome news among LDP lawmakers. On the issue of amending the Constitution — a longtime goal of conservatives — the LDP has approached Nippon Ishin to solicit cooperation. In a meeting last month between LDP Secretary-General Toshimitsu Motegi and Nippon Ishin’s then-secretary general, Noriyuki Baba, both agreed on advancing parliamentary debates on the constitutional revisions.


Ichiro Matsui, Nippon Ishin’s leader and Osaka’s mayor, told reporters last month that he wants a referendum on the constitutional amendment to take place on the same day as next year’s Upper House election slated for the summer.


Similarly, the LDP has lobbied the DPP for having active discussions about amending the Constitution.


Such a move could apply pressure to LDP junior coalition partner Komeito, which is less willing to embrace the LDP’s proposal for an amendment that includes specifying the role of the Self-Defense Forces in the nation’s supreme law.


Despite momentum on the constitutional amendment front, full-fledged debate is not expected to happen in earnest until next year’s regular parliamentary session. Still, the upcoming session will be closely watched for how Kishda approaches opposition parties to persuade them to get on board with his party’s agenda.

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