Liberal Party to leave bloc in policy agreements dispute

Obuchi turns back on Ozawa; some members to stay

Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi announced Saturday that the Liberal Party will quit the three-party ruling coalition with his Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito, effectively ending the alliance which had been in power since October.

The Liberal Party is expected to officially announce the party’s defection from the tripartite coalition on Monday, following a general meeting of the party scheduled for the same day.

“We failed to share basic ideas over how to operate the coalition government,” Obuchi told reporters after meeting with Liberal Party leader Ichiro Ozawa and New Komeito leader Takenori Kanzaki at his official residence Saturday evening.

During the 50-minute meeting, set at the request of the Liberal Party, Ozawa urged Obuchi and Kanzaki to realize a package of policy agreements reached by the three leaders in October. He also demanded that they show when and how they will be implemented.

However, Ozawa’s final bid to gain secure a raison d’etre for remaining in the ruling camp — the fourth time he had used the threat to leave — collapsed as Obuchi — finally — rejected to give in to Ozawa’s trademark strong-arm tactics.

As Obuchi and Kanzaki maintained that they felt it impossible to implement the agreements during the current Diet session, Ozawa expressed his regret and the meeting was terminated, Ozawa told a later press conference.

“(The responses from Obuchi and Kanzaki) were totally regrettable. I will tell the party members what happened on Monday, before announcing a conclusion (to the withdrawal issue) as the party,” Ozawa said.

Meanwhile, Obuchi told reporters after the meeting that the Liberal Party failed to find middle ground with the other two forces regarding the operation of the triumvirate.

A senior LDP official said Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki called Ozawa later in the evening and said the alliance with the Liberal Party would be dissolved.

The probable departure of Ozawa and his followers would still leave the LDP and New Komeito with a majority in both chambers of the Diet.

In addition, some within the Liberal Party ranks have indicated that they would like to remain members of the coalition, even if it means breaking with Ozawa and forming a new party.

The Liberal Party has 39 seats in the Lower House. The party’s 11 members in the Upper House are likely to stick with Ozawa.

Transport Minister Toshihiro Nikai, the only Liberal Party member of Obuchi’s Cabinet, has indicated he will remain in his post to deal with the situation surrounding Hokkaido’s Mount Usu, where a series of eruptions began Friday. Nikai is also head of the Hokkaido Development Agency.

Sources close to the Liberal Party confirmed Saturday that Nikai would be one of the lawmakers to sever ties with the party. Another senior party member, former Home Affairs Minister Takeshi Noda, told reporters Saturday evening that he would work to set up a new party once Ozawa officially confirms that the Liberal Party is leaving the coalition.

Many LDP lawmakers had hoped to reach a conclusion on the matter either way, fearing that protracted debate over the direction the Liberal Party would take would only undermine the administration.

Earlier in the week, Ozawa had addressed fellow Liberal Party lawmakers and stressed that their party would have a bleak future, buried within the coalition and general elections no more than six months away at the latest.

A split in the coalition could, however, hurt Obuchi’s political fortunes in the midst of preparations for a general election, which must be held by October.