Even if Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi manages to see New Year’s Day pass without serious Y2K problems, a big decision lies ahead of him — when to dissolve the Lower House and call a general election.

While considering the political and diplomatic schedules in the coming months, Obuchi must select a time for the elections before Oct. 19, when the four-year terms of the Lower House members expire.

Speculation is rife about the timing. Guesses include: late January, immediately after the regular Diet session starts; late March, when the fiscal 2000 budget is expected to clear the Diet; or after the Group of Eight summit, to be held in Okinawa July 21-23.

Although Obuchi has recently indicated he will not dissolve the Lower House in the near future, political analysts say he may choose to hold the election sooner than later — judging from uncertain economic prospects and potential discord within the governing coalition over the handling of sensitive issues.

“If the tripartite coalition gets into trouble over the handling of a bill to cut the Lower House seats at the beginning of the regular Diet session, it may prompt Mr. Obuchi to dissolve the chamber,” said Hidekazu Kawai, a professor of comparative politics at Gakushuin University.

At the end of the last Diet session, the coalition of Obuchi’s Liberal Democratic Party, the Liberal Party and New Komeito failed to pass the seat-cut bill — one of the policy agreements between the three parties — despite a strong push by Liberal Party chief Ichiro Ozawa.

After bumpy negotiations continued late into the night on the final day of the session, Ozawa warned that his party would leave the coalition if the LDP again breaks its promise and fails to pass the bill at the beginning of the regular Diet session.

The economy also will be a key factor that could prompt Obuchi to hold an early election, Kawai said.

“If economic prospects do not promise full-scale recovery by summer, the prime minister may judge that earlier elections will bring him better results,” he said. “It will be favorable for Obuchi to hold the elections when he can still say ‘I took these measures (for the economy), and the results will be seen later.'”

According to the latest gross domestic product data released in early December, the economy shrank a real 1 percent during the July-September quarter from the previous term. Observers say the results indicated that despite massive government spending to boost the economy, a solid recovery is not yet in sight.

Takeshi Sasaki, a political science professor and dean of the law department at the University of Tokyo, agreed with Kawai and said Obuchi will want to hold elections before voters lose faith in his administration’s massive spending policy.

He also speculated Obuchi may wait until the spring. The prime minister may think voters will remain “anesthetized” by his huge economic-relief spending, including the record 85 trillion yen budget for fiscal 2000, at least until the spring.

Indeed, in a recent television interview, Obuchi hinted that he does not intend to dissolve the Lower House until the budget for the next fiscal year clears the Diet in late March.

On the other hand, Obuchi may find it too risky to hold elections in the near future, in light of declining public support for his coalition Cabinet.

Support ratings for his Cabinet in major newspaper and wire service polls have fallen steadily since the tripartite bloc was formed in October.

“The worst problem for the LDP-led coalition is the fact that supporters of each party do not have cooperative relations,” said Yoshiaki Kobayashi, professor of political science at Keio University.

Opinion polls have shown that nearly 60 percent of LDP supporters oppose the tripartite alliance, and two-thirds of Liberal Party supporters oppose the coalition, Kobayashi pointed out.

Even if the three parties join hands within the Diet, it does not necessarily mean members of one of the coalition parties can rely on votes from supporters of the other two in elections, Kobayashi said.

For example, religious groups that have long backed the LDP threatened to end support for the party when Obuchi decided to form the alliance with New Komeito, which is backed by Soka Gakkai, Japan’s most powerful lay Buddhist organization.

Despite such concerns, Kobayashi said he doubts that the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition force, can attract voters critical of the LDP-led coalition.

“Because the DPJ’s policies are not very different from those of the LDP, it will be difficult for the party to collect anti-LDP votes,” he said.

Obuchi meanwhile will also have to consider his coalition partner’s demands in deciding the timing. Because the LDP is likely to remain short of a majority in the Upper House for years to come, the party will have to depend on their support, regardless of the outcome of the Lower House elections.

Obuchi will have to listen in particular to what New Komeito has to say, because the party will be essential if the LDP-led alliance is to retain a majority in the upper chamber.

New Komeito leader Takenori Kanzaki has said the Lower House should be dissolved only after the Group of Eight summit. The party apparently hopes to secure enough time to prepare for the election — the first time New Komeito’s campaign machines will be put to a test under the single-seat constituency system.

If Obuchi does not dissolve the Lower House soon, he may have to wait until summer or even later.

The government in April will start the public-care insurance system for the elderly, a sensitive issue as it could increase the burden on the public, and in July will host the G8 summit, the first one in Japan outside of Tokyo.

“If the (LDP’s) prospects in the election do not look good, it is possible that Obuchi will choose to complete these political tasks and wait until the terms of the current Lower House members expire (in October),” Kobayashi said.

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