Japan cabinet to approve naval mission bill

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TOKYO, Oct 17 (Reuters) Japan's cabinet was set to endorse today a bill to let the navy keep supporting US-led military operations in Afghanistan -- a mission both Washington and Tokyo say is vital -- but the outlook for the controversial legislation was murky.

Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda wants the navy to keep refuelling US and other ships policing the Indian Ocean against drug and arms smugglers and terrorists after current enabling legislation expires on Nov 1.

But meeting that deadline looks impossible because opposition parties that control parliament's upper house are against the mission, which they argue lacks formal UN authorisation.

While the ruling camp could override the upper house with its two-thirds majority in the lower chamber, lawmakers may well be reluctant to risk a public backlash by doing so.

''I don't think they will use their two-thirds majority,'' said Yasunori Sone, a Keio University political science professor, noting that the Buddhist-backed New Komeito party -- the junior partner in Fukuda's ruling bloc -- was opposed to such a move.

''New Komeito supporters are more interested in issues that affect their livelihoods,'' Sone added.

Japanese voters are divided on whether the mission should be extended, although support has increased in recent weeks.

Political analysts say despite opposition calls for an early lower house election, neither camp is keen for a showdown over an issue of less concern to most voters than pocketbook matters such as pensions and health care reform.

No lower house poll need be held until late 2009, but speculation persists that policy paralysis will spark a poll after enactment of the state budget for 2008/09 in late March.

Opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa, the head of the Democratic Party, has rejected calls to rethink his stance on the naval mission and suggested that instead, Tokyo could provide support for the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan (ISAF), a UN-authorised, NATO-led peacekeeping mission.

The government says participating in ISAF would violate Japan's pacifist constitution.

''Ozawa insists that Japan should take a more dangerous role to fight terrorism, but I don't think there is a consensus among the public that Japan should do that,'' said Toru Umemoto, a forex strategist who analyses politics for Barclays Capital.

Ozawa's party, an often fractious group of former ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lawmakers, ex-Socialists and younger hawks, has yet to agree on a counter-proposal to the government bill.

A poll by the Asahi newspaper published yesterday showed that two-thirds of Japanese voters wanted a compromise on the mission, but predicting what form a deal would take is tough.

''The government doesn't have a clear idea, nor do the Democrats,'' Sone said.

Reuters RN DB0925

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