The Japanese political world entered a summer recess when the extended ordinary Diet session closed Aug. 13. The session, convoked in January and extended in June for 57 days, passed a series of important bills, thanks to a legislative tieup among the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, the Liberal Party (the LDP’s junior coalition partner), and New Komeito. The LDP, headed by Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, formed a coalition in January with the LP, led by Ichiro Ozawa. Toward the end of the extended Diet session, New Komeito agreed to join the ruling coalition, giving the three parties a combined majority in both houses of the Diet and providing solid support to the Obuchi administration.
Among the bills enacted in the session were the fiscal 1999 government budget and legislation for reorganizing the central bureaucracy and decentralizing power, implementation of the updated guidelines for Japan-U.S. defense cooperation, legalization of the national anthem and flag, wiretapping in police investigations into organized crime and the requirement of identification numbers for all citizens. In passing this legislation, the LDP-LP-New Komeito forces won a crushing legislative victory over the opposition camp.
The top opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan, was divided by infighting over policy differences. The DPJ managed to forge a legislative tieup with the Japan Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party near the close of the session, but the opposition alliance was no match against the LDP-LP-New Komeito forces.
Japan’s season of typhoons in September is likely also to be accompanied by political turbulence. Attention will initially focus on policy talks among the LDP, the LP and New Komeito to pave the way for the establishment of a tripartite government. In addition, the LDP presidential election will be held Sept. 21.
On Aug. 13, Obuchi, the current LDP president, former LDP Secretary General Koichi Kato and former LDP policy chief Taku Yamasaki declared their candidacies in the LDP presidential election. The three candidates are expected to maneuver intensely for the post in the runup to the election. Obuchi is considered a shoo-in in the election, but some pundits say Kato is likely to put up a good fight. There is a more important question, however, than the results of the election: Will the proposed LDP-LP-New Komeito coalition work?
The LP and New Komeito still have serious policy differences over the proposed reduction of Lower House seats and over ways to fund social security reforms.
The LDP is at the center of the proposed alliance, with the LP to its right and New Komeito to its left. The LDP and the LP have been partners in the ruling coalition under a policy agreement, and the question remains as to how New Komeito will coordinate with the two parties. Will the three-way coalition be viable, or will it be only a political numbers game? Nothing is certain at this point.
It looks as though Obuchi is enjoying smooth sailing. The Obuchi Cabinet’s public-approval ratings have stabilized at about 50 percent. Although he is sometimes derided as “Prime Minister Vacuum” (for being empty), he is obviously pleased with his accomplishments. A year after his administration was inaugurated, the economy is on a recovery track and stock prices are firm, with the Tokyo Stock Exchange’s Nikkei average stabilized in the 17,000-18,000 range.
However, the political situation is likely to be volatile in the coming months. In October, all the Lower House members will have served the first three years of their four-year term, when the chamber will be ready for dissolution and a snap election. Japanese political history shows that a Lower House dissolution is most likely in three to three and a half years after the previous election.
In my view, political turbulence is inevitable. Much depends on the success of the tripartite coalition, the results of the LDP presidential election and the timing of a general election.
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