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While I was away from Japan on a recent overseas trip, the nation was plunged into political confusion following Liberal Party leader Ichiro Ozawa’s threat to leave the ruling three-party coalition. Ozawa suggested that his party could quit the alliance — which also includes the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito — over policy differences.

I was surprised at Japanese news reports overseas that Ozawa, contrary to his earlier threat to quit the alliance, proposed an LDP-LP merger to Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and other LDP officials. It is sometimes easier to understand Japanese politics if one is overseas rather than in Japan, because one gets Japanese news in a simplified form.

Ozawa’s position was:

* The LDP should accept all the LP policies at tripartite policy consultations.

* Failing that, the LP would leave the alliance, destabilizing the Obuchi administration.

* If neither is acceptable, the LDP should merge with the LP.

Ozawa defected from the LDP and founded the now-defunct Shinshinto in hopes of establishing a two-party political system and competing for power. But his hopes were dashed when Shinshinto suffered a serious setback in a general election and broke into splinter groups. The Democratic Party of Japan, which combined middle-of-the-road forces, emerged as the top opposition party, making the LP a minor conservative opposition group.

The LDP’s loss in the last Upper House election gave a new lease on Ozawa’s political life. The Obuchi administration, which succeeded the government of Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, lacked a majority in the Upper House and faced the possibility of the Diet passing a censure motion against Obuchi. Then Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiromu Nonaka sought help from his former archenemy Ozawa to save the LDP from political difficulties. This culminated in the creation of the LDP-LP alliance.

The alliance was still short of a majority in the Upper House, but the coalition strategy boosted the Obuchi administration’s public-approval ratings. Obuchi later accepted New Komeito into the alliance, which now controls 70 percent of the seats in both Diet houses. The coalition is capable of railroading any legislation through the Diet.

Power-hungry Ozawa must have been unhappy over a supplementary role he has had to play in politics. Having lost his dream of winning single-party rule, Ozawa is apparently intent on returning to the LDP and regaining ruling-party leadership by combining forces with conservatives such as LDP policy chief Shizuka Kamei and former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone. Kamei has long advocated a merger between LDP conservatives and the LP.

Kamei’s recent proposal to revise the public nursing-care insurance system, to be introduced next April, was apparently intended to help Ozawa make his stand clear in tripartite policy consultations.

Nonaka, who had brought the LP into the ruling coalition, was keenly aware of Ozawa’s strategy of effectively taking over the LDP. He successfully persuaded many LP legislators not to support Ozawa’s power play. Most LP lawmakers are seeking re-election and are hoping that the party will remain in the ruling alliance.

Ozawa suffers from violent mood swings, threatening to leave the alliance one day and proposing to rejoin the LDP the next. Nonaka, taking advantage of Ozawa’s changing positions, appears to be scheming to isolate Ozawa. Ozawa says he is looking for a chance to confront the LDP at policy consultations over national security and education toward the end of the Diet session.

One problem involves LDP-LP cooperation in the next general election. There will be direct LDP-LP confrontations in many electoral districts and there is no guarantee that the LP’s demand for incumbent lawmakers to be favored in fielding candidates will be honored. Furthermore, Nonaka is in charge of managing the election for the LDP.

LDP members are reportedly fed up with Ozawa’s constantly changing strategies. Some LP lawmakers who favored a merger with the LDP now say that it should take place only after the election, or even without Ozawa. Few doubt that Ozawa, the dictatorial politician who defected from the LDP six years ago, is in serious political difficulties.

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