Liberal Party members failed to reach a consensus over whether to leave the ruling triumvirate Wednesday night, leaving the future course of the little conservative party still unclear. Debate on the Liberal Party’s future has heated up since Tuesday night, when it became clear that a bill to reduce the number of Lower House seats would not be enacted during the current extraordinary Diet session, which ended Wednesday. Liberal Party leader Ichiro Ozawa has been threatening to pull his party out of the LDP-led coalition if his party’s own policies are made light of. The bill, aimed at abolishing 20 of the 200 proportional representation seats in the 500-seat House of Representatives, was the issue the Liberals pushed most during this Diet session. Earlier on Wednesday, Ozawa met with Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, president of the LDP, apparently in search of a breakthrough. Sources say that during the 30-minute talk at the Prime Minister’s Official Residence, the two leaders discussed their cooperation as coalition partners in the future. Ozawa declined to comment on the contents of the meeting and only said, “I will speak at the appropriate time.” LDP leaders seem to doubt the veracity of Ozawa’s tough-talking stance — especially his threat to leave the coalition. Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki said later in the day that the Liberal Party is unlikely to leave the coalition, while LDP Secretary General Ichiro Mori said that he is confident the LDP and the Liberals will maintain the current coalition into the next Diet session, which begins in late January. The bill to reduce the number of Diet seats was railroaded through a special committee of the Lower House on Tuesday by the LDP and New Komeito, the other cog in the ruling bloc, amid fierce protests from the opposition camp. The episode began Tuesday when Shin Sakurai, a senior Liberal Democrat and chairman of the committee, promised the opposition that the ruling bloc would not put the bill up to a vote during the day’s session. Based on that promise, the opposition agreed to attend the session, and the committee went on to unanimously pass another bill to ban corporate donations to individual politicians starting Jan. 1, as required by the revised Political Funds Control Law. The bill cleared the full chamber later that night. In the meantime, however, Sakurai suddenly proposed putting the seat-reduction bill up to a vote, sparking a scuffle in the committee room. Dozens of opposition lawmakers mobbed Sakurai in protest, but the chairman and the ruling coalition declared the bill passed. Despite the bill’s passage, the Lower House steering committee decided on the same day to carry the bill over to the next Diet session — a decision that runs counter to what the Liberal Party had been seeking. The Liberal Party has persistently insisted that the bill be enacted during the current session in accordance with an agreement it reached with the LDP in August; New Komeito joined the bloc in October. Before the talks with Obuchi on Wednesday, senior Liberal Party members solicited the opinions of the party’s rank and file on the party’s future. The members said they would leave the final say to Ozawa. Liberal Party lawmakers were divided over whether to stay, with some telling Liberal Party Secretary General Hirohisa Fujii that the party should pull out, and others saying such a move would not be wise strategy, party members said.
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