Japan is engulfed in severe political turmoil as the Diet session closes today. Things have turned out as I have been predicting since last fall regarding the coalition strategies of Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiromu Nonaka, the chief strategist in Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi’s administration.

Since late last year, political reporting has focused on the coalition of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the conservative Liberal Party. Although it failed to secure a majority in the Upper House, the alliance has been largely successful, catapulting the Obuchi Cabinet’s public-approval ratings to a high level. From the beginning, I thought that Nonaka’s coalition strategy was aimed at ensuring Obuchi’s re-election as LDP president, the first step toward a long-term rule by his administration. It was my belief that the LDP was looking for a new coalition partner to obtain a majority in the Upper House. Power-hungry New Komeito, which had adequate numerical strength, looked like the kind of partner the LDP wanted.

The proposed coalition of the LDP, the LP and New Komeito is still involved in dispute. LP leader Ichiro Ozawa is demanding that the LDP honor its agreement to cut the number of Lower House proportional representation seats by 50 under legislation now before the Diet. New Komeito, however, vehemently objects to the Diet seat reduction bill, which would undermine its political strength.

The proposed tripartite alliance, which might have seemed a splendid idea, is in danger of collapsing. This is because the parties involved ignored their basic policy differences in agreeing to a coalition proposal. Nonaka apparently failed to take into account the resentment of Ozawa, who bolted the LDP and caused the downfall of the government of then Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa six years ago. Political maverick Ozawa and his comrades were relegated to a small splinter group following realignment of the opposition camp three years ago.

The LDP has a number of Ozawa’s sympathizers, such as former Construction Ministers Takami Eto and Shizuka Kamei, who lead a conservative intraparty faction. Some of these hawks are agitating for Ozawa’s restoration in the LDP with a view to reforming the party into a new conservative force under his leadership. Ozawa seems to have ambitions toward that end. Nonaka and his aides, sensitive to the pro-Ozawa moves, are urging young Liberal lawmakers not to join Ozawa, saying the LDP is ready to guarantee their re-election on its ticket in the next general election.

The next general election will be held by the fall of 2000 at the latest. The LDP’s partners in the proposed tripartite coalition are looking for the best political advantage in election cooperation as a condition for agreeing to the alliance. For individual lawmakers, advantages or disadvantages in the election are a matter of life and death, and cannot be determined solely on the basis of party interests.

Whatever happens, New Komeito is unlikely to leave the proposed coalition, since the top leaders of the party and Soka Gakkai — the lay Buddhist organization that backs the party — have made a firm decision to join the union. A focal question is what incentive Obuchi will offer the LP to convince it to stay in the coalition. Obuchi could promise to consider a reduction in the number of proportional representation seats and the timing of a reduction. He could also propose cooperation between the LDP and the LP in the next general election, but is unlikely to make more compromises.

The LP could decide to quit the alliance with the LDP if Ozawa persists in enacting the Diet seat reduction bill. That would result in a two-way coalition between the LDP and New Komeito. The question is, how many LP lawmakers would follow Ozawa in bolting?

On the other hand, if Ozawa were to stay in the coalition without his demand being met, his political survival would be in grave danger. Whichever course he takes, Ozawa’s political future seems bleak. I wonder if there will be some kind of last-minute expediency, a favorite trick in Japan’s conservative politics.

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