TOKYO— Japan’s ruling party pushed contentious security bills through a legislative committee Thursday, catching the opposition by surprise and causing chaos in the chamber.
Opposition lawmakers surged toward the chairman’s seat as they realized something was up after ruling party legislators had gathered at the podium to protect him.
As the scrum intensified, ruling party lawmakers still in their seats stood up to signal their support for the legislation, though there didn’t appear to be an audible announcement of what they were voting on.
The legislative standoff is the latest development in a yearslong national debate about the way Japan uses its military, a central question for the country since its armed forces were defeated in World War II seven decades ago. The bills would ease restrictions on what the military can do, a highly sensitive issue in a country where many take pride in the postwar pacifist constitution.
A senior opposition member later said his party would not accept the vote because the ruling bloc had cheated.
“You saw the scene. We do not recognize there was a vote. How can you tell what happened, what the chairman was calling?” said Tetsuro Fukuyama, committee leader for the Democratic Party of Japan.
If the vote stands, the legislation will go to the upper house of parliament for final approval. The bills were passed by the more powerful lower house in July.
“Although it was unfortunate that the bills had to be approved this way, they are absolutely needed in order to protect the lives and happiness of the people,” Masahisa Sato, a member of the committee for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, told public broadcaster NHK shortly after the vote. “We are relieved. Now we will do our utmost for approval of the bills in a house vote.”
The ruling party’s ploy ended nearly 24 hours of delaying tactics by the opposition, which plans more when the full upper house takes up the bills.
Before the vote, opposition lawmakers had introduced a no-confidence motion against the committee chairman, who earlier had tried to force the meeting to start.
Despite the delays, the bills are likely to be passed eventually because Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling bloc has a majority in the upper house.
The legislation would allow the military to defend Japan’s allies even when the country isn’t under attack, work more closely with the U.S. and other allies, and do more in international peacekeeping.
Abe says Japan needs the bills to bolster its defense amid China’s growing assertiveness and to share global peacekeeping efforts. Opponents say the legislation violates Japan’s war-renouncing constitution, while putting the country at risk of being embroiled in U.S.-led wars.
The opposition plans a series of no-confidence votes against Abe’s Cabinet and its key members — a process likely to take more than half a day — before a house vote can take place.
Those no-confidence motions, however, are purely symbolic and meant to be delaying tactics. They would have no impact on the stability of Abe’s government.
As the drama played out in parliament, a few hundred protesters rallied outside the building under a steady rain, after a bigger demonstration by thousands the previous night.
The protesters shouted “Scrap the bills right now” and “No to war bills,” while flashing placards with anti-Abe and anti-war messages.
Over the past few months, new faces have joined the ranks of protesters, typically made up of labor union members and graying left-wing activists.
A group of students has emerged as leaders of the protests, which have grown to tens of thousands who fill the streets outside parliament every Friday and often on weekends.
“Anyone who understands the basic principle of the constitution cannot help but oppose the legislation,” Aki Okuda, a leader of the group Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracies, told reporters. “It’s ridiculous, and the bills’ legal questions have fueled the people’s anger.”
Abe’s ruling party wants the bills passed by Friday to avoid a swelling of protests during an upcoming five-day weekend. Abe also promised the U.S. that they would be approved by this summer.
Media surveys have consistently showed a majority of respondents oppose the legislation. One released Monday by the liberal-leaning Asahi newspaper showed 54 percent opposed the bills, compared to 29 percent supporting them.
Katsuya Okada, head of the Democratic Party of Japan, said it was “outrageous” for Abe’s ruling block to rush a vote on legislation that has split the nation. “We must join our forces and block their ploy,” he said.