Japan politicians play 'game of chicken' over financial cliff

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda
TADANOUMI, Japan -- Locked in a political standoff over a crucial budget bill, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda is under mounting pressure to hasten elections -- a step likely to push his party out of power.

The budget bill, which would allow the Japanese government to borrow more than $480 billion, is needed to plug a gaping deficit that could force the country to make sweeping cuts. The government called an extra session of parliament to try to pass the bill this fall, warning that Japan could run out of money in November if lawmakers don’t patch the hole.

But opponents of Noda and his ruling Democratic Party of Japan have argued that the prime minister should first set the date for general elections, which would likely put his increasingly unpopular party in jeopardy.

Noda is not required to call elections until next summer but promised in August to do so “soon” to win opposition backing for other bills. Shinzo Abe, president of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, insisted Wednesday that Noda should dissolve the lower house of parliament before the end of the year. The opposition has so far blocked the budget bill in protest.

The stalemate shows that “none of the national politicians are really thinking about how to run the country,” said Haruko Satoh, associate professor at Osaka University. “They just want to win elections.”

The pressure has piled up on Noda with the resignation of his justice minister and the continued defection of lawmakers from his party. The gambit could backfire for the opposition, however, as it is divided and soon facing a new party recently announced by the strident governor of Tokyo. Some municipalities are already beginning to grumble about the dangerous deadlock.

“By the end of this month, Japan could face a government shutdown,” said Masahiro Matsumura, a professor of international politics at St. Andrew’s University in Osaka. “These two parties are playing a game of chicken. I don’t know which will get out first.”

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-- Emily Alpert

Photo: Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda answers questions during a session of the lower house of parliament in Tokyo on Oct. 31, 2012. Credit:  Kazuhiro Nogi / AFP/Getty Images

 
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