The curtain rose Thursday on the new conservative coalition government to reveal just one more unimpressive performance of the same old political drama. Much had been said and written about the apparent significance of the realignment, but it seems to have ended up as essentially just another political numbers game.

The coalition between the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the Liberal Party was launched with a minor reshuffling of the Cabinet in which only Mr. Takeshi Noda, secretary general of the LP, was given a post, that of home affairs minister. His assumption of the Cabinet portfolio was made possible by the resignation of his predecessor, who belongs to an intraparty faction led by Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi.

At the same time, the number of Cabinet ministers was cut back from 20 to 18, a move that was achieved at the expense of two ministers also affiliated with the Obuchi faction. Mr. Obuchi accepted the LP’s demand that the Cabinet posts be trimmed as a contribution to administrative reform. In so doing, he used a method that would least roil the waters within his faction-oriented party.

Obviously, Mr. Obuchi feared that a major Cabinet change affecting factional representation in the Cabinet might provoke troubles that would eventually erode the current party leadership. A positive analysis of Thursday’s Cabinet change might interpret this as evidence of Mr. Obuchi’s tactical adroitness, but we often witnessed the debilitating effect of such factional considerations in the pre-1993 LDP.

A larger and more serious issue in Thursday’s reshuffle is that Mr. Ichiro Ozawa, head of the LP, did not join the coalition Cabinet. It remains an unanswered question whether Mr. Ozawa himself chose to stay out of the Cabinet or whether some Liberal Democrats strongly opposed his assuming an official and important post in the coalition administration.

Mr. Ozawa engineered the political developments behind the reunion of the LDP and his own followers, who bolted the LDP in the summer of 1993. His policies were also the starting point for the negotiations that led to the formation of the coalition government. All this, of course, demands that Mr. Ozawa stand at the forefront of the governing alliance. But he does not.

This could augur badly for the future of the newborn conservative coalition. When Mr. Ozawa’s group was a partner in coalition governments after the 1993 political watershed, he opted to stay in the back room, pulling strings behind the scenes. This not only substantially reduced the transparency of the nation’s party politics, but also hindered the sound development of the budding political realignment in Japan. Mr. Ozawa should keep this in mind.

The same thing should be said of any politician in either of the two parties who views the coalition government as merely an expedient means of winning the political numbers game or improving his party’s lot in the next general election. Such politicians in the LDP probably detest the idea of giving Mr. Ozawa a prominent formal post, a fact that will only encourage him to step up his behind-the-scenes activities. If that were to occur, however, the governing alliance would serve neither the people nor its two parties well.

The launch of the coalition will further consolidate the governing majority in the Lower House, but in the Upper House the LDP-LP alliance still falls short of a majority by 10 seats. In these circumstances, a failure to jointly propose distinctive policies will alienate even those opposition party members who have basically similar ideas and goals.

The Diet is headed for debates on bills related to the guidelines for Japan-U.S. defense cooperation, the third extra-spending budget for fiscal 1998, the main budget for fiscal 1999 and measures to streamline the bureaucracy. The true significance of the new conservative government will be tested by its handling of these crucial issues.

Thursday’s coalition is based on a broad policy agreement resulting from months of talks between the two parties. Suspicions about the political numbers game will be removed only when the two governing parties exercise their joint strength to expedite deliberations on these key issues through the normal management of Diet business. Any attempt to resort to purely numerical strength would prove that those policy talks were mere play-acting, rehearsals in yet another two-bit political melodrama.

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