It appears certain that Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi will be re-elected president of the Liberal Democratic Party Sept. 21, which means he will remain at the helm of the government. Although his term as head of the ruling party does not run out until Sept. 20, 2001, whether he will serve out as prime minister depends on political circumstances.

His biggest hurdle will be the general election following the dissolution of the House of Representatives, which is expected shortly after the summit conference of the industrialized nations scheduled for July 20 next year. Whether the Liberal Democrats will retain the present number of seats in the Lower House will determine the destiny of the Obuchi government. If the party fails to win more seats than it has today, Obuchi will be held liable.

The LDP holds 266 seats in the Lower House, excluding Speaker Soichiro Ito. In the previous general election held on Oct. 20, 1996, however, the party won only 239 seats. Subsequently, the number has increased to the present 267 as several independents joined the party.

The question is the number above which the Liberal Democrats must win the Lower House seats in the next election in order to claim victory — the 239 won in the previous election or the 267 held now. Obuchi’s supporters will likely insist on 239 as they hope to have him remain in power, while those who side with Koichi Kato and Taku Yamasaki may favor a figure higher than 267.

There is no objective standard to determine whether the magic number is 267 or 239, because those who support Obuchi and those who oppose him have different standards.

What, then, is a fair judgment? This is what I think: The LDP now holds 267 seats (including the speaker), which is 16 more than the 251-seat majority; any action by the Diet is determined by the majority; it follows, therefore, that if the number of seats won by the ruling party in the next general election falls short of that majority even by one or two seats, Obuchi should step down from the party presidency and resign as prime minister. The key number, therefore, is the majority of 251.

Although much will depend on future developments in the political scene, it appears unlikely that the LDP will suffer a crushing defeat in the next general election by losing 16 or more of the incumbents, thus failing to secure a majority. Should the ruling party lose 16 or more seats, which other party would gain seats?

In the extraordinary session of the Diet to be convened this fall, a law will be passed to reduce the number of proportional-representation seats in the House of Representatives by 50, from the next general election. This will put New Komeito, the Japanese Communist Party and the Democratic Party of Japan at a disadvantage.

New Komeito has 13 members elected from individual constituencies and 29 in proportional-representation, while the respective figures for the JCP are two and 24. These figures show that these two parties depend on proportional-representation. That is why they are against the proposal to reduce the proportional representation seats by 50, as favored by the LDP and the Liberal Party.

If the number of the proportional-representation seats is indeed reduced by 50 prior to the next general election, New Komeito and the Communists will find it difficult to increase their seats in the Lower House. Their losses will probably result in additional gains by the Liberal Democrats in proportional representation. The popularity of the DPJ, the top opposition party, is far short of spectacular. In the previous election, the Democrats won 46 seats in single-seat constituencies and 47 in proportional representation. This indicates that they, too, are relying on proportional representation, though to a smaller extent than New Komeito or the JCP, and that the proposed 50-seat reduction would affect them adversely, giving a better chance for the Liberal Democrats to gain seats.

The Liberal Party, meanwhile, now has 25 members of the Lower House elected in constituencies and 14 in proportional representation. The present popularity of that party seems to preclude any sharp increase in their House seats in proportional representation.

Thus, judging from the results of the previous general election, it appears highly unlikely that the LDP will lose many seats in the next election, even though its coalition with the LP and New Komeito is not very popular. In other words, the number of seats to be won by the Liberal Democrats will not be much less than the present 267. If that is the case, Prime Minister Obuchi will not be held responsible, and will remain in power with greater confidence than ever.

If the LDP succeeds in winning the same number of seats as today or more, that might result in the LP and New Komeito losing their seats, in which case blame may be placed on Ichiro Ozawa and Takenori Kanzaki, the heads of the respective parties. As a result, the governing coalition may collapse.

Because the Liberal Democrats do not have a majority in the House of Counselors, however, they need cooperation from the LP and New Komeito. Without their cooperation, legislative bills submitted by the government would be rejected in the Upper House, making it difficult for the ruling party to steer the Diet proceedings.

If this situation occurs, what sort of combination will come out among the LDP, the LP, New Komeito and the DPJ?

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