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Political chaos in August ended when the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner, the Liberal Party, agreed to form an alliance with New Komeito, despite widespread fears that the tripartite negotiations would fail because of policy differences. By successfully playing a political numbers game, the administration of Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi tightened its grip on power. The LP, which was on the verge of breakup over whether it should stay in the alliance, managed to avoid that fate. This was the second time that a Komeito group, supported by the lay Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai, would join a ruling coalition. All public opinion polls show, however, widespread opposition to the three-way alliance.

With the dust settling over the coalition issue, the political world is turning its attention to leadership battles in the ruling and opposition forces. LP leader Ichiro Ozawa, who managed to keep his party in the ruling camp after threatening to bolt over policy differences, has no problem retaining his post. There will be no change in the leadership of New Komeito, either, amid widespread praise among its supporters for its participation in the ruling coalition. But the LDP and the Democratic Party of Japan, the top opposition force, will hold elections to choose their leaders.

Obuchi is widely expected to win the Sept. 27 LDP presidential election and retain his job as prime minister. His rivals — former LDP Secretary General Koichi Kato and former LDP policy chief Taku Yamasaki — have little chance of winning. The Obuchi Cabinet enjoys high public-approval ratings of almost 50 percent, among the highest on record in Japan. Obuchi is supported by all LDP factions except the Kato and Yamasaki groups, and is also credited with riding out the political storm over the coalition issue.

Kato is known for his political acumen and international sense. I believe he is outstanding among LDP officials for his doctrines, policy initiatives and political stance. Kato, as a member of the LDP’s YKK (Yamasaki, Kato and former Posts and Telecommunications Minister Junichiro Koizumi) group, presented fresh policy ideas for the old-fashioned LDP, which is poisoned by power politics, money power and factionalism. As a liberal conservative leader, he tried to thwart moves by hawkish LDP lawmakers to seek constitutional revisions to make it possible for Japan to send Self-Defense Force troops overseas for combat operations.

The timing for Kato’s entry into the leadership fray, however, could not have been worse. The LDP had lost its majority in the Upper House, as Japan faced the worst economic crisis after World War II. Under pressure at home and abroad, the LDP forged an alliance with the LP led by archconservative Ozawa, the opposite of liberal Kato. It appears as if the LDP will do anything to retain power, including giving up the merits of postwar democracy if necessary.

There is widespread speculation in the political world that Obuchi will win 490 votes in the LDP presidential election against 105 for Kato and 45 for Yamasaki. Some pundits say Kato must win at least 120 votes for his political survival while Yamasaki must collect 50 votes. The voters will be lawmakers and general members of the LDP, and the two men’s chances for survival will hinge on how the voting by general LDP members will reflect popular sentiment. Recent opinion polls show growing public dissatisfaction with today’s politics and opposition to the new coalition. Voting results could influence the future of the coalition and politics in general.

Also interesting is the DPJ presidential election next month. DPJ Deputy Secretary General Yukio Hatoyama, a conservative liberal, is likely to have an advantage over incumbent Naoto Kan, a middle-of-the-road liberal, if it turns out to be a race between the two men. A victory by Hatoyama would shift the top opposition party’s stance toward the right, signaling an earthshaking change in Japanese politics.

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