The extraordinary Diet session that convened last Friday is the first parliamentary sitting since the tripartite coalition administration of Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi was launched about a month ago. The public’s main concern is with what Mr. Obuchi is trying to accomplish under the expanded coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party, the Liberal Party and New Komeito.
In his policy speech to both houses, the prime minister praised his new coalition, saying it represents the best way to implement “better policies” under a stable government, with like-minded parties working together for the common good of the people. Actually, however, he left the people wondering exactly where his coalition Cabinet will go from here.
The coalition government has a solid majority in both houses, but opinion polls show it does not necessarily enjoy as much public support. It has already suffered a number of setbacks — the LDP defeat in the Upper House by-election in Nagano Prefecture, the resignation of parliamentary Vice Defense Minister Shingo Nishimura over improper statements, and the bribery conviction of former Cabinet Secretary Takao Fujinami.
In particular, Nishimura’s remarks in a magazine interview hinting at the advisability of Japan’s nuclear arming — which Mr. Obuchi described as “inappropriate” and “extremely regrettable” — called into question the nation’s three nonnuclear principles. Moreover, Nishimura’s comments comparing collective security action to rescuing a woman from rape “utterly disregarded,” as Obuchi put it, “both the feelings of women and the principle of human rights.” Understandably, the prime minister offered his “heartfelt apologies.”
The Nishimura incident has shaken public perception of the Obuchi administration, particularly of Mr. Obuchi, who appointed the ultranationalist to the No. 2 defense post. As Mr. Obuchi himself said in his speech, the only way to meet public expectations is to achieve results acceptable to the people.
The policy speech covered, among other subjects, economic recovery, nuclear safety and social security. Explaining his plan for “economic rebirth,” the prime minister expressed his determination to restore the frail economy to health as soon as possible and rebuild a robust, future-oriented economy in the 21st century.
The economic-revival package — the highlight of the current Diet session — puts special emphasis on assistance to cash-strapped small businesses and startup companies. It also features “millennium projects” in three key areas: information technology, care of the elderly and environmental protection. The package, coming at a time when the economy shows growing signs of recovery, seems to reflect a certain optimism on the part of the government.
Referring to the Sept. 30 nuclear accident in Tokaimura, Ibaraki Prefecture, Mr. Obuchi assured the nation, “We will continue to take all possible measures to provide health care for all local residents and assist them in any other way, and will exert every effort to both accelerate our exhaustive investigations into the cause of the accident and promptly establish and implement measures for preventing a recurrence of this type of accident.” The government, he added, will send to this session a bill to bolster safety regulations and disaster-prevention measures.
Regarding social security, Mr. Obuchi made it clear that the elderly-care insurance program, which continues to stir controversy both within and outside the government, will be launched in April 2000 as scheduled. The coalition parties agreed, immediately before the opening of the Diet session, on a six-month delay in collecting premiums on the nursery-care insurance program — a move that has been roundly criticized as an obvious vote-getting gimmick. However, the prime minister chose to remain silent on this issue.
Nor did he comment on the coalition’s decision to keep open the flow of corporate donations to individual politicians — a decision that effectively scraps an earlier Diet commitment to prohibit such contributions from 2000. Here, too, the prime minister needs to state his views clearly if he wants to win “public understanding and cooperation.”
Mr. Obuchi is coming under fire, not only in the Diet, but also from within his own party. With a general election approaching, the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition group, is gearing up for a showdown with the ruling triumvirate, which is itself not quite united on security and other key issues. Bending principles on essential policies just to preserve the coalition’s majority in the Diet would not help win public confidence in the tripartite alliance. On the contrary, it would doom Mr. Obuchi’s administration.
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