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Keizo Obuchi was elected prime minister Thursday in the first split Diet vote since 1989, clearly illustrating the tight spot in which his Liberal Democratic Party now stands.

Obuchi was voted prime minister by the LDP-controlled Lower House in a plenary session early Thursday afternoon. However, the Upper House later rejected him in favor of Democratic Party of Japan leader Naoto Kan. Kan’s DPJ combined with the other opposition forces to overwhelm the LDP’s weakened minority in the upper chamber.

Kan’s nomination was largely symbolic because the Constitution gives voting supremacy to the Lower House during selection of the prime minister. After a lengthy procedure to coordinate the views of the two houses ended in vain, Obuchi was confirmed as Japan’s 54th prime minister.

Still, the lack of Diet consensus illustrates the weakness of the LDP and its leader, who must now confront an energized opposition camp that threatens to seize any opportunity to oust him from power.

In the Lower House plenary session, Obuchi won 268 out of the 497 votes cast by the chamber’s 500 members, well above the 249 needed to win. Kan, who collected 164 votes, was supported by the DPJ and members of two other smaller opposition forces — the Japanese Communist Party and the Liberal Party. Three votes were ruled invalid.

Among other opposition leaders, Takenori Kanzaki, head of Shinto Heiwa (New Peace Party), collected 37 votes; SDP leader Takako Doi won 14 votes; Tatsuo Ozawa, chief of the small group Kaikaku Club (Reformers’ Network Party), gathered nine votes; Sakigake leader Masayoshi Takemura collected two votes.

In the 252-seat Upper House, the first round of voting ended with Obuchi holding 103 of 248 votes cast — far short of the 125 needed for a majority. Kan received 98 votes, Komei leader Toshiko Hamayotsu 24, Doi 13, and Ozawa and Takemura three each. Four blank votes were cast.

In the ensuing runoff, Kan received united support from his DPJ and six other opposition forces to defeat Obuchi 142 votes to 103.

After it was confirmed that the two chambers remained split, Obuchi was officially declared by Lower House Speaker Soichiro Ito to have been elected prime minister — nearly four hours after the Lower House voted.

The drama was reminiscent of the split decision in 1989, when Doi, then leader of the Social Democratic Party of Japan — now the SDP — defeated Lower House favorite Toshiki Kaifu in the Upper House in similar fashion. Doi was backed jointly at that time by an opposition camp that had been encouraged by the LDP’s severe losses in the Upper House election that year.

The LDP has been unable to regain an Upper House majority since that election, and its setback in the July 12 election made matters worse. Although the ruling party holds a solid 13-seat majority in the Lower House, which has the upper hand in passing budget bills, it is now 21 seats short of a majority in the Upper House.

This leaves Obuchi in a tough position. With the four-year alliance between his party, the Social Democratic Party and New Party Sakigake no longer in existence, he must seek cooperation from opposition forces to move key legislative measures through the Diet. These include government-proposed bills to put the nation’s financial sector in order.

After winning the Upper House vote for prime minister, Kan urged the Obuchi administration to dissolve the Lower House and call a general election. “The people said ‘No’ to the LDP in the (July 12) Upper House elections, and that has been reflected in the result of today’s vote by the Upper House members,” Kan said.

The LDP lacks the people’s mandate in the Lower House as well, Kan said, because the ruling party did not win a majority in the last 1996 general election and only forged its majority by adding independents to its ranks after the poll. “The point for the opposition parties is to join their power and force the (Obuchi administration) to dissolve the Lower House,” he said.

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