Japan passes law to restart Afghan naval mission

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan’s government forced a law through parliament on Friday to resume a controversial naval mission in support of U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan, keeping a promise to security ally Washington.

The opposition-controlled upper house had earlier voted down a bill to restart the mission to refuel U.S. and other ships patrolling the Indian Ocean, a sign of the divisions in parliament that are causing policy paralysis.

But Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda’s government took the rare step of overriding the rejection by using the ruling coalition’s two-thirds majority in the more powerful lower house. Such a step had been taken only once before, more than five decades ago.

Opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa, head of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), has insisted the six-year-old mission, halted last year when an earlier law expired, lacks a United Nations mandate and violates Japan’s pacifist constitution.

U.S. and Japanese officials say the mission is vital to the war against terrorism, and Fukuda had vowed to enact a new law before the parliament session ends on January 15, allowing the refueling to resume as early as February.

“Terrorism is the bane of our time. By passing this legislation, Japan has demonstrated its willingness to stand with those who are trying to create a safer, more tolerant world,” said U.S. ambassador to Japan Thomas Schieffer in a statement.

Opposition lawmakers and some Japanese media criticized the ruling bloc for using its two-thirds majority, since the huge majority was the result of a 2005 election that was cast as a mandate on then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s plan to privatize the mammoth postal system.

No lower house election has been held since then and the ruling bloc took a drubbing in an upper house election last July.

“The most recent will of the people is reflected in the upper house,” DPJ Secretary-General Yukio Hatoyama told reporters.


The constitution allows the lower house to override an upper house rejection in a second vote with a two-thirds majority, but the procedure has been used only once, in 1951, and ruling lawmakers had been wary of a public backlash.

The Democrats had threatened to counter with the first-ever parliamentary censure motion to be passed against a prime minister in hopes of forcing an early election for the lower house and ousting the ruling bloc.

But with many Japanese voters more concerned about economic issues such as pensions, and Fukuda likely to ignore the non-binding motion anyway, the opposition has decided to save the censure for a matter closer to the public’s heart.

The next clash is expected to come in the session of parliament from January 18 over taxes and other budget-related bills.

The Democrats have proposed cutting gasoline taxes to help those hit by rocketing oil prices while the government, struggling to cope with a huge public debt, wants to keep the taxes at current levels.

The DPJ, a mixture of former members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), one-time socialists and younger hawks, is widely seen as ill-prepared to fight an election yet.

The party was thrown into turmoil last November after Ozawa discussed a coalition with Fukuda to break through the policy deadlock caused by the divided parliament, then offered to resign when his party executives rejected the idea.

He later decided to stay on, but in a one-on-one debate with Fukuda on Wednesday failed to press the prime minister hard on policy matters and did not make the case for an early poll.

No lower house election need be held until September 2009, and Fukuda, who has seen his support rates slide to below 35 percent since he took office last September, wants to avoid an election until after Japan hosts a Group of Eight summit in July.

Editing by Alex Richardson