The contentious seat-reduction bill that has rocked the government for months was passed in an Upper House plenary session Wednesday amid an opposition boycott of all Diet proceedings. The ruling coalition — the Liberal Democratic Party, Liberal Party and New Komeito — skipped committee sessions in the Upper House and put the bill up for a final vote in the plenary session. The chamber approved the bill 134-to-1. Nearly half of the seats in the plenary session room were vacant because of the absence of the Democratic Party of Japan, the Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party. The law will take effect in time to cover the next Lower House general election, which must be held by October. The law will eliminate 20 of the 200 proportional representation seats in the 500-member chamber. The remaining 300 seats are elected through single-seat constituencies. The seat cut was originally proposed by the Liberal Party, which repeatedly threatened to leave the coalition if the bill was not passed at the beginning of the current Diet session. The three parties agreed to pass the bill when they launched their coalition in October. “I think that promise has been met,” said Hirohisa Fujii, secretary general of the Liberal Party, signaling an end to the strife over the party’s repeated threats to leave the coalition, at least for the moment. Fujii said his party will stay with the bloc in order to realize remaining policy agreements made with its two partners, particularly those related to social security and national security legislation. The battle between the ruling and opposition camps, however, is far from over. The opposition has been boycotting Diet sessions since last week to protest the ruling bloc’s handling of the bill, which cleared the Lower House last Thursday, also in the absence of opposition legislators. Opposition lawmakers are urging Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi to dissolve the Lower House, saying the huge coalition has ignored Diet rules to form a consensus with minority forces in order to keep the Liberal Party in the ruling camp. “This vote means the death of the Diet, which has renounced its legislative role,” DPJ President Yukio Hatoyama said. He criticized the ruling camp for skipping deliberations at an Upper House committee, arguing that sufficient debate over the electoral system be conducted by both the ruling and opposition camps. Obuchi meanwhile slammed opposition lawmakers for “renouncing their duty” to conduct debate in the Diet, calling on them to halt the boycott and end the turmoil in the legislature. “I’d like to say the door is always left open,” Obuchi said during the plenary session before the voting. The ruling coalition is preparing to proceed with budget sessions despite the opposition boycott, while the DPJ plans to convene “an alternative Budget Committee” today at a Tokyo hotel. The opposition parties have expressed their determination to continue the boycott unless the ruling parties strike some compromise to break the deadlock. But Hatoyama also indicated the same day that his party would be willing to return to the Diet if the ruling bloc apologizes to the nation over the current turmoil and agreed to dissolve the Lower House as soon as possible, as the opposition parties are demanding. “If the ruling parties make some proposals, we would certainly deal with that,” Hatoyama told a press conference after the enactment of the seat-reduction bill. Both the ruling and opposition camps now are closely monitoring public reactions. If the public begins to criticize the Obuchi Cabinet for forcing passage of the bill and causing turmoil in the Diet, Obuchi may have no choice but to dissolve the Lower House to break the political deadlock and call an election, observers said. But if the public begins to criticize the opposition for renouncing deliberations on the fiscal 2000 budget, which the ruling parties say is necessary to put the economy back on a recovery track, those parties may be forced to give in and return to the Diet.

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