Staff writer

Some rifts appearing within the ruling coalition were bandaged over Monday when the Liberal Party apologized for ignoring a meeting convened Friday to discuss a new nursing-care insurance for the elderly.

The Liberal Party’s ploy to extend negotiations over the issue backfired when the government approved its final decision on measures to reduce the financial burden on taxpayers and users.

“I am sorry for the absence of Secretary General Hirohisa Fujii from the meeting and for causing trouble,” Liberal Party leader Ichiro Ozawa said.

But Ozawa also said his party will continue to promote its own opinion on how the system should be financed — one of the most contentious issues between the three ruling parties.

The Liberal Party has maintained from the start that the new system should be funded entirely with consumption tax revenues. Originally, the new scheme was to be partially funded with premiums charged to taxpayers over 40. But Friday’s decision will delay or lessen the collection of the premium with the resulting 1.07 trillion yen burden taken care of by debt-covering bonds.

Ozawa’s apology came during a meeting between leaders of the government and top executives of the ruling alliance, which also includes the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito.

Tensions between the allies increased Friday when the government announced its decision concerning the public-care system, which will be launched in April, without securing the backing of the Liberal Party. But Ozawa’s apology indicates that the Liberal Party will not leave the coalition over the matter.

The episode, however, clearly highlights the potential for instability within the tripartite coalition and the broad differences on internal policies. It also raises questions over whether Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi’s administration is capable of controlling the alliance.

The absence of the Liberal Party from Friday’s meeting at one point led reporters to believe that the government would postpone a conclusion in order to further negotiate with the Liberal Party.

But Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki announced the government’s decision after talks between executives of the LDP and New Komeito. Asked if this might cause friction with the Liberal Party, Aoki’s response was blunt: “I don’t think so.”

“I believed the three parties would come (to the Prime Minister’s Office as invited) at 3:30 p.m. (The government) cannot take responsibility for (the Liberal Party’s) not attending,” Aoki told a news conference at around 6 p.m. Friday.

The government’s decision on the public-care system — in the face of the Liberal Party’s opposition — shows that it is ready to take the initiative on issues over which the three parties differ.

It also shows that the government was confident that the Liberal Party would not leave the coalition over the matter.

So far, that call appears to have been correct.

Aoki has often emphasized that he will leave any policy disagreements between the three coalition parties up to their leaders, but the final decision will ultimately be made by Obuchi himself.

This time, Aoki has apparently succeeded in demonstrating that Obuchi calls the shots.

But the new nursing-care system is only one of the issues over which the three parties differ, and their unity, as well as the leadership of both Aoki and Obuchi, is likely to be tested further.

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