Staff writer

The fledgling tripartite coalition of Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi will get its first taste of real Diet debate as the 48-day extraordinary session opens today.

Obuchi had earmarked the session as one in which key bills and a supplementary budget to further buoy the economy would be swiftly approved.

But it seems he must now fend off attacks from the opposition, which has been emboldened by a series of missteps under his administration. These include controversial remarks on nuclear armament and rape made by the new vice parliamentary defense minister, Shingo Nishimura, over which he resigned his post.

The prime minister must also steer the coalition through Diet proceedings while seeking the best time for the alliance to dissolve the Lower House for general elections, which must be held no later than next October.

When Obuchi formed his long-sought coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party, the Liberal Party and New Komeito earlier this month, his administration seemed to have the wind in its sails.

Although initial opinion polls showed a low support rate for the new Obuchi government, he seemed confident its popularity would increase if it achieved such goals as full economic recovery, on the strength of the comfortable majority the bloc enjoys in both Diet chambers.

But now, the coalition parties will have to mend their policy differences while fending off attacks from the opposition camp on such issues as Nishimura’s gaffe and the recent conviction of one-time chief Cabinet secretary and former LDP member Takao Fujinami in the 1980s Recruit bribery scandal.

Obuchi appears to be determined to brave it through, saying on Tuesday, “In the first Diet session under the tripartite coalition, I want to achieve new policies to show the public the significance of the alliance.”

The government will stake its fate on bills to assist small and midsize businesses to be brought before the extraordinary session. Along with these bills, the government plans to submit by the end of November a second supplementary budget for fiscal 1999 padded with pump-priming steps.

Other major bills the government plans to submit to the Diet include one to restrict the activities of the Aum Shinrikyo religious cult and another to improve nuclear safety in the wake of the nation’s worst nuclear disaster suffered last month at a uranium processing plant in Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture.

The coalition also hopes to enact at the start of the session a law to cut 20 proportional-representation seats from the 500-seat Lower House — one of the three parties’ key policy agreements.

Because the original plan under the LDP-Liberal Party coalition to cut 50 proportional-representation seats was strongly opposed by New Komeito — half of whose current Lower House members were elected through proportional representation — the three parties managed to strike a deal on the issue by starting with a 20-seat reduction.

Opposition parties, for their part, have gained momentum for attacking the triumvirate, which, with more than 70 percent of the Lower House, seemed to be a hard nut to crack before recent developments.

The largest opposition force, the Democratic Party of Japan, has become more confident in confronting the coalition, helped by its candidate’s recent landslide victory over an LDP opponent in an Upper House by-election. The election was widely seen as a litmus test for the tripartite alliance.

New DPJ head Yukio Hatoyama said his party will fully examine the contents of the supplementary budget during the Diet session, but is prepared to argue that the fiscal package could end up just scattering money without stimulating the economy.

Nishimura’s resignation has also provided the opposition camp with a chance to try to corner Obuchi over his responsibility in appointing Nishimura to the post in the first place.

In addition, three opposition parties, including the DPJ, plan to submit a joint resolution to the Diet session calling for Fujinami to resign from politics altogether following his conviction in the stock-for-favors scandal.

“Conflicts between the ruling and the opposition parties will be fiercer than in the last Diet session, in which New Komeito, as a member of the opposition, was cooperative with the ruling parties depending on the bill being discussed,” a senior coalition lawmaker said.

Deliberations also may be invigorated by the introduction of a new Diet interpellation system to expand the role of lawmakers, under which Cabinet ministers — rather than senior bureaucrats — will be expected to respond to questions during Diet deliberations.

Because of this change, Obuchi has placed emphasis on choosing ministers who can handle such interpellations without bureaucrat assistance. The 32 parliamentary vice ministers appointed by Obuchi will also take part in Diet committee debates from the government side to answer legislators’ queries.

“I chose and appointed the parliamentary vice ministers taking into account the aims of the new system,” Obuchi said recently. “But it was a great shame that such an incident (regarding Nishimura) happened,” he added.

To the prime minister’s dismay, policy differences among the three parties on other matters have also begun to surface, possibly providing more ammunition for the opposition.

One such issue is whether to continue condoning corporate political donations, despite a law calling on legislators to work to ban such contributions beginning next year.

The LDP has decided to allow politicians to continue accepting donations from companies and other organizations, while New Komeito has insisted that politicians not receive such contributions.

“We will strongly demand that the LDP keep the promise it has made by drawing up the law,” DPJ leader Hatoyama said in reference to the LDP’s move concerning political donations.

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