The extraordinary Diet session that ended Thursday brought to the fore the simmering discord within the tripartite ruling coalition. The Liberal Party threatened to quit the coalition because a bill to slim down the Lower House, which was one of the conditions for the party’s joining the coalition, was put on hold.
The session, the first since Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi formed the coalition Cabinet in early October, failed to address the question that the people want to know the most: With the 21st century almost here, what is the primary goal of the giant coalition? Mr. Obuchi praised the virtue of coalition politics, but stopped short of saying exactly what he wants to achieve under the triumvirate.
The three ruling parties — the Liberal Democratic Party, the LP and New Komeito — command a considerable majority in the Diet. But that does not mean that the Obuchi administration is stable because the parties, in a hasty attempt to put together a ruling alliance, neglected to hammer out a solid joint policy agreement.
Discord on cutting the number of Lower House seats is a case in point. The halfway changes made to the nursing-care insurance program, scheduled to start next April, have also made it clear that the coalition stands on rather shaky ground.
At the close of the Diet session, the LP expressed strong dissatisfaction that parts of the tripartite policy package, including the plan to streamline the Lower House, had not been put into practice, and hinted that it might break with the coalition. However, in a last-minute meeting with Mr. Obuchi, Mr. Ichiro Ozawa, the outspoken LP leader, retracted the threat. Still, the episode is a reminder that the ruling coalition faces a bumpy road ahead.
One good thing about the last Diet session is that it passed a series of economic bills designed to bolster the nascent recovery, including the second supplementary budget and measures to help small businesses. In his policy speech at the outset of the session, the prime minister called for an “economic revival,” and paid special attention to cash-starved small businesses.
The Lower House reform measure, designed to eliminate 20 of the 200 proportional representation seats in the 500-seat chamber, was tied to a bill that would prohibit donations from business firms and interest groups to individual politicians. The package was aimed particularly at the LP, the most ardent advocate of downsizing the lower chamber.
However, the opposition parties balked at the linkage, forcing the ruling parties to agree, the day before the end of the session, to put the campaign funding bill to the vote first. As a result, the donations bill passed, but with the defeat of a LP proposal to extend the session, the Lower House bill was put on hold until the next ordinary session, which opens in January.
The failure of the Lower House bill is ascribed partly to the objections mounted by opposition parties. But the primary reason, however, lies in the basic differences that exist among the coalition parties themselves on the desirable structure of the Lower House. Electoral reform, of course, goes to the heart of parliamentary democracy. It is not a matter to be handled out of partisan consideration for a particular party or as part of petty parliamentary maneuvering. It must be discussed from the broad perspective that includes both ruling and opposition parties.
With a general election expected in the near future, all parties tried during the session to stake out a position of advantage. Opinion polls show, however, that the tripartite coalition government is losing public support. In order to gain public confidence and win the next election, Mr. Obuchi needs to show clearly where his administration is going. The Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition group, also needs to show the shape of politics it will try to build if it takes power.
Another highlight of the last Diet session was the new debate system, which aims at invigorating parliamentary activity. For the first time in the nation’s parliamentary history, Prime Minister Obuchi, who is also president of the LDP, conducted face-to-face debates with other party heads. The new formula, touted as the Japanese version of “Question Time” in the British Parliament, was introduced on a trial-and-error basis prior to the opening of the regular session in January.
The debates were conducted purportedly to discuss basic issues the nation faces. But the exchanges that took place were anything but satisfactory. Perhaps it would be better to devise a different formula attuned more to Japan’s political culture, rather than simply “copy” a foreign system.
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