Japan's lower house of parliament approved yesterday the resumption of the nation's naval mission supporting the US-led "war on terror," setting up a battle in the opposition-controlled upper house.
Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda pushed through the legislation days before he is set to hold his first summit with US President George W. Bush and amid speculation he would call a snap election if the opposition blocks the deployment.
The lower house, where Fukuda's coalition holds an overwhelming majority, voted 327-128 in favor of a bill to restart the mission, which provided fuel and other logistical aid on the Indian Ocean to vessels and aircraft supporting US-led forces in Afghanistan.
The naval mission, which began in 2001, ended on Nov. 1 over a deadlock in talks between the government and the opposition on extending the legislation.
The opposition won control of the upper house of parliament in July elections and has vowed that Japan, officially pacifist under its post-World War II Constitution, should not take part in "American wars."
"There has never been a clear and unequivocal constitutional interpretation" to justify the mission, Ichiro Ozawa, head of the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), told reporters.
"History has shown the danger of sending troops overseas based on rhetoric," Ozawa said.
But the opposition party has been in disarray since Ozawa angered his colleagues this month by considering Fukuda's offer of a grand coalition.
Ozawa said he would step down but retracted his offer two days later.
Fukuda's predecessor, Shinzo Abe, an outspoken advocate for a more robust foreign policy, resigned in September in part over the opposition's refusal to extend the naval mission.
Abe returned to parliament yesterday after receiving prolonged treatment for stress-related illness and said he voted for the bill.
A close aide to Fukuda earlier threatened a snap general election, which does not need to be held until September 2009, unless the opposition compromises.
In preparation, Ozawa's party set up an election headquarters yesterday.
"Looking at the possibility of a general election by the end of the year, we are making full preparations as we move ahead," DPJ secretary general Yukio Hatoyama told party members.
Fukuda's Liberal Democratic Party has a strong organizational structure across Japan, where it has been in power for all but 10 months since 1955. It suffered this summer's election setback after a raft of scandals under Abe.
Fukuda, in a separate interview to London's Financial Times, hinted that elections were not a priority before Japan hosts the G8 summit in July next year.
"I hold the authority to call an election. In the absence of the dissolution of the lower house, we shall host the G8 summit," Fukuda said.
Chief government spokesman Nobutaka Machimura said no decision had been made on an early election.
"I can't say it will definitely occur or definitely not occur. Basically, it's too early to discuss things about the end of the term" of parliament, Machimura told reporters.