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The Lower House on Tuesday approved a legislative package for implementing the updated Japan-U.S. defense cooperation guidelines and sent it immediately to the Upper House. The action came after agreement among the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, the Liberal Party (the LDP’s junior coalition partner) and the opposition New Komeito. The legislation is certain to become law, since the three parties hold a majority in the Upper House. Japanese politics is expected to enjoy temporary stability following the endorsement of the most important legislation for the current Diet session, which will end in two months.

Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi will bring the news of the Diet action as an “omiyage” to U.S. President Bill Clinton when they meet at the White House Monday. Obuchi and Clinton are also likely to have friendly but lively exchanges of opinion on a number of economic issues between the two countries. Washington has been pressing Tokyo to rev up domestic growth.

Pending in the remaining Diet session are important bills for streamlining the central bureaucracy and for decentralizing power. But the Obuchi administration will face the session with increased strength, thanks to stepped-up cooperation among the LDP, the LP and New Komeito. This marks a turnaround compared with the lack of strength and low popularity ratings the administration suffered in the first six months after its inauguration last July.

The appearance of stability is likely to be temporary, however, and no optimism is warranted regarding the administration’s future. Japan could be hit by political turbulence in the second half of 1999. After a political lull during the Golden Week holidays, a host of political and economic problems are expected to emerge in June or July.

Politically, the LDP-LP-New Komeito tieup, based on expediency and involving contradictions, could unravel anytime. Economically, some experts say, the emerging signs of economic recovery are illusory, resulting from a series of economic-stimulation measures promoted by the government. With those factors in mind, government and LDP officials are talking about these possibilities:

* Advancing the scheduled LDP presidential election to July from the end of September, when Obuchi’s term as LDP chief expires.

* Calling for a Lower House dissolution for a snap election sometime between next July and fall (the four-year term of all Lower House members will expire in October 2000).

* Calling for a Lower House dissolution as soon as possible, immediately after Obuchi is re-elected LDP president.

Some politicians inside and outside the LDP have criticized these ideas, which have been floated by Obuchi’s intraparty backers. Others have warned that anything could happen once Obuchi decides to use his authority to dissolve the Lower House. Growing debate could prompt Obuchi to make a snap decision on the issue.

In the LDP presidential election, no contender is likely to emerge to challenge Obuchi’s leadership. It is next to impossible to overthrow Obuchi, who belongs to the largest LDP faction, headed by former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita.

The critical issue is when to call for a Lower House dissolution. Diet history shows that Lower House members have served an average of about three years of their full four-year terms before facing general elections. The present Lower House members, elected in October 1996, will have completed the first three years of their term next October. It is hardly surprising that speculation is rampant about a Lower House election.

Obuchi would make maximum political gains by calling for a Lower House dissolution at a time when the economy is recovering, when he has strong control over his party, and when his popularity ratings are high. If so, he is likely to dissolve the chamber sometime between June — when the present Diet session closes — and November. Should he delay his decision until next spring, he could miss a good opportunity, especially if economic recovery is slow.

In the end, the economy is likely to hold the key to Obuchi’s decision. If he is unsure about the prospects of recovery in the second half of the year, he could call for a Lower House dissolution in late June. Otherwise, he could make up his mind before the end of the year. It looks as if Japan in 1999 will experience political turbulence in the second half of the year, after enjoying a lull in the first half.

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