The situation in the Diet looks calm for now. The debate on the fiscal 1999 government budget, the most important item before the Diet, is proceeding smoothly. The budget bill has already cleared the Lower House and is expected to pass the Upper House around March 20, well before the start of the new fiscal year.
But clouds are gathering on the horizon. April’s Tokyo gubernatorial election, the highlight of the coming local elections, is likely to be a free-for-all with potentially negative ramifications for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Former U.N. Undersecretary Yasushi Akashi, the LDP candidate chosen after a bruising partisan battle, faces a bumpy road ahead. An LDP defeat in the Tokyo election could shake up the party leadership and even the administration of Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi.
The Tokyo poll, however, is a tempest in a teapot compared with the much larger issues that are set to jolt Japanese politics over the long haul. First, political parties are moving to set up a Diet panel to review the Japanese Constitution. Second, moves are afoot to retool the election system for the Lower House (single-seat districts coupled with proportional representation). And third, a suprapartisan group is looking for ways to rein in the runaway budget deficit. This group, which calls itself the Forum Concerned about Fiscal Deficits, held its inaugural meeting in late February.
It is highly significant that these long-term fundamental issues are coming up at around the same time. These questions will affect the nation’s future in critical ways, depending on how they develop.
A suprapartisan group excluding the Social Democrats and the Communists decided at a general meeting last month to create a Diet committee that would study a wide range of constitutional questions. The group, headed by former Foreign Minister Taro Nakayama, is called the League of Parliamentarians to Create a Research Committee on the Constitution.
Revamping the current Lower House election system is looming as a hot issue in part because some parties are harking back to the old system of multiple-seat districts, which has been roundly criticized as the seedbed of money-driven politics. It is widely acknowledged that the single-seat/proportional representation system is not working properly. For example, a Lower House member elected under the proportional formula can quit to run again in his district’s by-election (a person elected proportionally is considered lower in rank than one elected directly).
Finally, the ballooning budget deficit — the result of an aggressive fiscal policy aimed at reviving a sick economy — is the most urgent issue facing the Diet. It directly affects the lives of the people, who are increasingly concerned about the nation’s economic future.
The Obuchi administration, which took over from the Hashimoto administration six months ago, has changed fiscal gears to prevent the economy from going into a deflationary tailspin. But massive bond issues, designed chiefly to finance public-works projects, have inflated the budget deficit and the national debt. At this rate, warns the Forum Concerned about Fiscal Deficits, the government could eventually go bankrupt.
How these three long-term issues develop in the months and years ahead bears close watching. The fortune of the Obuchi Cabinet depends in no small measure on how it grapples with these overriding themes, which will likely determine the shape of this nation as it prepares to enter a new century.
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