Japanese lawmaker defects in blow to 'old guard'

A senior lawmaker defected from Japan’s ruling party on Tuesday, denouncing beleaguered Prime Minister Taro Aso as an “old-guard crony” and casting a shadow over his controversial moves to revive the economy.

Yoshimi Watanabe, former minister for administrative reforms, had pressed Aso to call snap elections to win a mandate and scrap a plan for cash handouts to the public totalling two trillion yen ($22-billion).

The 56-year-old, whose father was a well-known foreign minister, announced he had left the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) just after a key parliamentary committee approved an extra budget for the current year.

Watanabe showed a packed news conference a letter stating he had left the LDP, which has been in office for all but 10 months since 1955 but is widely seen to be at risk of losing elections, which must be held by September this year.

“The biggest reason that I am leaving the party is that the LDP currently operates a kind of politics that it closed off from the public,” Watanabe said.

“Prime Minister Aso is the spokesman for Kasumigaseki’s old-guard cronies,” he said, referring to the Tokyo district that is home to Japan’s powerful bureaucracy.

Watanabe argued that the conservative premier’s cash stipends were a gimmick that would do little to lift Japan out of recession while worsening the country’s ballooning debt.

But the budget committee of the lower house pressed ahead and passed the emergency spending for the current year through March, virtually ensuring it will come into force.

The opposition controls the less powerful upper house but the lower chamber can override it.

Aso said the cash handouts were needed to lift Japan, where companies are slashing tens of thousands of jobs as overseas demand dries up for cars, electronics and other export.

The current economic crisis “is a once-in-a-hundred-years event that no one has experienced,” he told the parliamentary committee.

“In the short term, it is the right move to stimulate the economy by fiscal measures,” Aso added.

Watanabe, speaking later at his news conference, mocked Aso’s remarks, saying: “As for a once-in-a-century crisis, there is a need to build a once-in-a-century political system.”

While Watanabe is the first to bolt, a number of liberal-minded LDP lawmakers have criticised Aso, whose government’s popularity has plummeted to below 20% a little more than three months after taking office.

Watanabe was particularly incensed after Aso put on the backburner reforms to end Japan’s common practice of retired civil servants taking cushy positions at private companies—sometimes ones they once were in charge of regulating.

“Once again this country is nothing more than one led by bureaucrats and its politics will continue to disenchant the people,” Watanabe said.

Watanabe is expected either to stay independent or form a new party.

He said he would meet with “high-spirited people” who are trying to change Japan.

Aso’s government played down Watanabe’s rebellion, saying it reflected one person’s views.

“I don’t think this will have a big influence,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura told reporters.

But Minister for Land and Transport Kazuyoshi Kaneko acknowledged that the departure showed the tough situation for the LDP.

“He must be leaving the party because he thinks the LDP will lose in the general elections,” Kaneko said. - Sapa-AFP

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