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Following the Diet’s enactment last week of a legislative package covering the updated guidelines for Japan-U.S. defense cooperation, the Lower House on Tuesday passed bills that will allow wiretapping in investigations into organized crime. The administration of Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi has thus cleared the major legislative hurdles in the current Diet session, now in its final phase.

The Japanese political community is abuzz with speculation about the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s presidential election, the No. 2 opposition party New Komeito’s increasingly close ties with the alliance of the LDP and the Liberal Party, and the timing of a Lower House dissolution for a snap general election.

Still pending in the Diet are important legislative packages, including one for restructuring the central bureaucracy, but they are not attracting much attention because they do not involve power struggles. More attention is focused on proposals to modify the public nursing-care insurance law, which will be implemented next April. An increased financial burden on the public in connection with the insurance could hurt the LDP in the election.

The LDP presidential election will be held before Obuchi’s term as LDP chief runs out at the end of September. Few doubt that Obuchi will be re-elected. Obuchi and Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiromu Nonaka, the key man in the Obuchi Cabinet, have succeeded in wooing New Komeito into the ruling camp. The parliamentary tie-up has lessened the influence of autocratic LP leader Ichiro Ozawa in the ruling alliance, and has facilitated the Upper House proceedings for important bills for the government. This has raised the Obuchi Cabinet’s public approval ratings to the safe range of 30-50 percent.

The LDP presidential election will be effectively a showdown between Obuchi and former LDP Secretary General Koichi Kato, although former LDP policy chief Taku Yamasaki has also announced his candidacy. Most factions have announced their support for Obuchi, and this signals an overwhelming victory for him, since votes at the party convention will be split along faction lines.

Kato says he would like to engage Obuchi in a public policy debate, but that he will support Obuchi if the latter is re-elected at a party convention. Members of the Obuchi faction, as well as anti-leadership conservatives who now wish to return to the LDP leadership, say Obuchi should be re-elected unopposed.

There is a strong likelihood that New Komeito will join the ruling alliance. The party says it is considering a non-Cabinet alliance, but leaders of the Soka Gakkai Buddhist organization, which backs New Komeito, are reportedly leaning toward a full alliance.

New Komeito, however, has one condition for joining the alliance: That a multiple-seat constituency system be restored in Lower House elections to replace the existing system combining single-seat districts and proportional representation. The party has cooperated with the Obuchi government on the tacit understanding that the LDP will make serious efforts to satisfy the condition. New Komeito may agree to the continuation of the present system in the next general election, but is likely to demand the revival of the old system in the election after next. If it fails to receive an LDP assurance about the condition before it holds a convention in August, it may limit its cooperation with the LDP to non-Cabinet support.

The timing of the next general election is a matter of serious concern for the ruling and the opposition forces alike. Obuchi is likely to call for Lower House dissolution at a time when the economy is doing relatively well. He will probably try to avoid a dissolution next year, for which the economic outlook is uncertain. He would also try to shun a general election at a time when an increased financial burden on the public regarding public nursing-care insurance becomes a political issue. Most politicians agree that the dissolution should take place before the end of the year. There is mounting speculation that a general election will be held in November, in consideration of New Komeito’s opposition to an early election.

Regardless of the timing, it is up to the voters to elect their representatives. Apathy toward the LDP remains strong in urban areas, and the LDP owes its survival to the weak opposition forces and the single-seat constituency system, which favors the ruling party in elections.

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