Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi has been re-elected president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party by warding off the challenge from former LDP Secretary General Koichi Kato and former LDP policy chief Taku Yamasaki. Many LDP Diet members have been quick to see his impressive victory as a vote of confidence for Mr. Obuchi, an endorsement of his policy of drawing New Komeito into the present LDP-Liberal Party coalition, which was the key issue during the LDP presidential race.
During the leadership campaign, both Mr. Kato and Mr. Yamasaki expressed strong reservations about the wisdom of having New Komeito inside the Cabinet. Mr. Obuchi, however, insisted that the addition of New Komeito would boost the government’s strength in the Diet and ensure greater “political stability.” Beyond that, he has said very little on how a three-party coalition would change the political landscape and what exactly he wants to do with the added parliamentary strength from New Komeito. He appears to have deliberately ignored the principle that agreement on basic policy matters is a prerequisite for any political marriage.
Mr. Obuchi has argued that a policy agreement of sorts has already been established with New Komeito, pointing to support on important bills the government received from them during the past Diet session. It appears that Mr. Obuchi is willing, and even eager, to launch a coalition government without reaching a comprehensive policy accord among the three coalition partners. However, Mr. Obuchi should acknowledge that the three-party coalition is not endorsed by LDP members as overwhelmingly by the same large margin as his victory in the presidential race.
Major issues still divide the LDP, the LP and New Komeito. One is the size of reduction in the number of proportional-representation seats in the House of Representatives. Originally proposed by LP leader Ichiro Ozawa, the idea has been bitterly opposed by New Komeito, a party that draws substantial strength from the proportional-representation system. Another major difference dividing the three parties is national security, particularly the role of the Self-Defense Forces in U.N.-authorized peacekeeping missions such as the current U.N. involvement in East Timor. Also, since New Komeito is openly backed by Soka Gakkai, the nation’s largest lay Buddhist organization, there is persistent public concern over the separation of religion and politics once New Komeito becomes part of the government.
All these are important political issues that must not be papered over, much less steamrolled through Parliament by the sheer numerical strength the three-party alliance holds in both houses of the Diet. The Obuchi government’s recent record is far from reassuring. With precious little regard for the need to do its utmost to form a national consensus, the government pushed through controversial legislation such as the defense “guidelines” bill and the anthem-and-flag bill in the previous Diet session.
The fact that Mr. Kato and Mr. Yamasaki drew substantial support from rank-and-file LDP members during leadership race means the three-party coalition idea does not enjoy unanimous support even within the ruling party itself. As a matter of fact, recent opinion polls have repeatedly shown that the three-party coalition is rejected by a majority of registered LDP members. A pre-election survey conducted by a major vernacular paper showed that nearly 50 percent of the respondents opposed such a coalition. Corresponding figures for the supporters for Mr. Kato and Mr. Yamasaki were as high as 71 percent and 63 percent, respectively.
This eloquently explains why these two challengers won more votes than had been expected. This also makes it all the more important for Mr. Obuchi to spell out his specific policy positions before launching a new government.
The LDP suffered a major upset in the Upper House elections held last year and it is understandable that Mr. Obuchi has little inclination to call an early general election any time soon for the Lower House, whose term does not expire until October next year. But major political issues such as the review of the Constitution and national defense are brewing in Japan as the nation stands at a crossroads in a world where religious and ethnic conflicts are erupting everywhere.
The Japanese economy is showing feeble signs of a recovery after a prolonged and painful slump. Japan now needs firm leadership that can confidently lead this nation through a transitional period fraught with great uncertainties. An unprincipled political marriage of convenience can do more harm to the nation and, indeed, the LDP itself in the long run.
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