TOKYO (AFP) — Japan's opposition on Wednesday slapped an unprecedented censure motion on Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, dealing him a stinging rebuke weeks before he hosts the Group of Eight summit.
The censure, driven by criticism of a hugely unpopular medical plan that raises costs for many elderly people, was the first to be approved in Japan's parliament under the post-World War II constitution but has no legal force.
Lawmakers in the opposition-led upper house cheered loudly as they passed the censure motion along party lines. Chief opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa said the vote was a call for the resignation of all of Fukuda's cabinet.
"Voters now will not permit the current government to stay in office without calling a snap election," Ozawa told reporters.
Yukio Hatoyama, secretary general of the main opposition Democratic Party, noted that the motion was "the first in history to pass."
"The Fukuda cabinet must take this seriously."
Fukuda responded shortly afterward that he "will take it seriously" but said he had no plans to call general elections, which can be held any time through to September 2009.
Denouncing the opposition's tactics, Fukuda said: "I may be the victim who suffers the most, but voters are suffering more than me."
Despite dismal approval ratings, Fukuda has pursued a full agenda ahead of the July 7-9 summit of the Group of Eight major economic powers, including announcing a plan this week to start Japan's first mandatory caps on greenhouse gas emissions.
"Technically, this is just symbolic, but it becomes more than symbolic because it's ahead of the G8 summit," said Hidekazu Kawai, a professor of politics at Gakushuin University in Tokyo.
"When Fukuda hosts the summit, he will carry the label as a leader slapped with a censure motion," Kawai said.
The ruling coalition, which controls the more powerful lower house of parliament, quickly submitted a rival confidence motion in the government which it expected to pass as early as Thursday.
Most opposition lawmakers said they would boycott parliament in the wake of the censure motion, further stalling legislative proceedings in the world's second largest economy.
But the opposition decided to carry out the long-threatened motion just four days before the session was set to end.
The government is likely to extend the session, even without the opposition, to ensure the passage of a free-trade deal with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
"This is nothing more than a political performance," chief government spokesman Nobutaka Machimura said of the censure motion. "I don't quite understand what they mean to do."
Japan's parliament has been divided for nearly a year since the opposition's landmark victory over Fukuda's Liberal Democratic Party, which has been in power for all but 10 months since 1955.
"Through the motion, the opposition parties are trying to show again that people chose them in the last elections," said professor Kawai. "The opposition wants to use this to press for general elections."
Fukuda, a 71-year-old political veteran, took over in September with hopes of reviving the Liberal Democrats' fortunes.
He is best known for his efforts to ease tensions with Japan's neighbours. Last month, he hosted Chinese President Hu Jintao for a landmark visit of reconciliation between the Asian powers.
But Fukuda's popularity has fallen to just over 20 percent after his government in April introduced a medical plan for people over age 75 that raises premium costs and deducts health care costs directly from pension payments.
The system has led to concern and confusion among the elderly, a core constituency of the Liberal Democrats.
The government says the plan is inevitable in a country with a ballooning public debt and one of the world's greyest populations.
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