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Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi won re-election in the Liberal Democratic Party’s presidential election held Sept. 21. Four days later, Yukio Hatoyama was elected chief of the top opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan. On Oct. 5, Obuchi launched his new three-party coalition government after New Komeito joined the ruling coalition of the LDP and the Liberal Party.

These events ushered in a new phase in Japanese politics. An extraordinary Diet session, which is likely to last until mid-December, will be convened Oct. 29. Debate is expected to focus on economic-stimulus measures, including a second fiscal 1999 supplementary budget, aid to smaller industries and ways of increasing employment.

Amid sharp confrontations between the ruling and opposition forces in the session, political attention will shift to a dissolution of the Lower House for a snap election. The LDP-LP-New Komeito alliance suffered a severe setback in the first election battle that was fought under the new political structure. DPJ candidate Yuichiro Hata won an Upper House by-election held Oct. 17 in Nagano Prefecture with about 360,000 votes, beating his LDP rival Kenichiro Fukazawa, who collected 240,000 votes. A Japan Communist Party candidate came in third with 140,000 votes, followed by a Social Democratic Party candidate with 100,000 votes. In what was regarded as a litmus test of the coalition, the DPJ won by a 6-4 margin.

Results inevitably will influence the Obuchi administration’s political strategies, especially those concerning the Lower House dissolution. On Oct. 19, all the Lower House members, who were elected in the last general election held in October 1996, completed the first three years of their four-year term. Diet history in the past 50 years shows that between elections, Lower House members generally keep their seats for between three and three-and-a-half years. Under this rule of thumb, the next general election would be held between next month and the summer of 2000.

Until recently, there was widespread speculation in the political world that the election would be held sometime between next month and next April or May, or toward the end of the lawmakers’ term next October. More specifically, one group forecast that the election would be held around the New Year’s season while another predicted that it would come after the Group of Eight summit Japan will host next July.

My theory was that the election would take place around the New Year’s season. I thought that the LDP, heading the three-way coalition that has an overwhelming majority in the Diet, might try to rush an economy-stimulating fiscal 1999 supplementary budget through the extra Diet in preparation for dissolving the Lower House at the outset of an ordinary Diet session to be convened in January. Diet action on the budget would be followed by the compilation of a fiscal 2000 government budget in December. This would give the LDP the greatest advantage as the rival DPJ would suffer delays in preparing for the election.

The LDP’s election defeat in Nagano Prefecture changed all that. Despite its absolute majority in the Diet, the tripartite coalition has not received wide public support. Furthermore, New Komeito failed to actively support the LDP candidate in Nagano, despite its traditionally strong voter base.

These factors are likely to convince the government and the LDP to delay a Lower House dissolution to sometime after next spring. The situation is highly volatile, however. Apart from partisan interests, all Lower House members will be agitated over the election in the coming months, having finished the first three years of their term. They will lose interest in Diet activities and spend more time making preparations in their home districts for the election. Once the political situation starts moving toward a general election, it will be difficult to stop the move. One thing is certain: There will be intense political maneuverings over the timing of the election.

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