The Diet is stuck in turmoil, with all opposition parties boycotting both plenary and committee sessions. In both Houses, all legislative procedures — the delivery of key policy speeches, questions and answers, and even a vote — have been conducted by and for the benefit of only the ruling-party members. The immediate reason for this anomaly is a mundane bill that will cut the number of Lower House seats by 20 in the proportional-representation sector.

The opposition, outraged at the high-handed way the ruling parties railroaded the bill through both Houses, continues to sit out all plenary and committee sessions. Their strategy, apparently, is to drive the ruling coalition into a corner and precipitate an early Lower House election. But the three ruling parties — the Liberal Democratic Party, the Liberal Party and Komeito — appear to be in no mood for compromise just now. They are bracing for “solo debate and voting.”

The top item on the legislative agenda is the government budget for fiscal 2000, not the seat-reduction bill. The ruling parties are rightly committed to getting the budget through the Diet before the new fiscal year begins in April. Why, then, all the fuss about the seat cutback?

The coalition parties were bound by an agreement to clear the bill at the outset of the current ordinary Diet session. Had they reneged on that agreement, the LP, a staunch advocate of downsizing the 500-seat Lower House, probably would have left the coalition, bringing Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi’s administration to the brink of collapse.

There was also the possibility that dawdling over this particular matter would have irreversibly aggravated a thinly veiled difference in position between two coalition partners, the LP and Komeito, over the seat-reduction problem. For Mr. Obuchi, removing this thorn in the side of the fledgling coalition was also essential to gaining more elbow room in dissolving the House — a prerogative reserved for the prime minister.

On the other hand, the opposition parties used the fracas over the seat-reduction bill to their own advantage, putting the blame for the hiatus in the Diet squarely on the ruling parties. Their strategy is to shake up the Obuchi administration and force an early election, which they hope will put the coalition parties on the defensive. The Democratic Party of Japan has been holding a “mock Diet session,” outside the Diet, which is actually intended to bolster party unity in the runup to a general election.

This is, after all, an election year in Japan. The Lower House must be dissolved in October by the latest, when its members’ current term expires. Given the political dynamics at work, the mood of confrontation is unavoidable. But the Diet’s primary role as the nation’s highest deliberative body must not be left to the mercy of election-year politics. The budget must be duly discussed, so that it can pass the legislature without delay. Japan’s economic recovery, still in an unstable condition, depends largely on the speedy passage of the budget.

Beyond that, with the 21st century at hand, the Diet should also discuss the shape of things to come in this nation. In the absence of a credible road map for the future, the public’s anxiety will not dissipate and its distrust of politics will have nowhere to go but up. To give the people hope as well as confidence, the Diet must first return to normal. That means the ruling and opposition parties must end their premature confrontation and get down to serious discussion.

At the moment, it is hard to predict how the situation in the Diet will develop in the days and weeks ahead. But if the ruling parties go ahead and discuss the budget on their own, with the opposition shouting — or just watching — from the sidelines, then this Diet session will go down as one of the most dysfunctional ever. Its essential duty, to repeat, is to debate Japan as it should be in the new century, as well as the recovery budget for the new fiscal year.

In deliberations on the budget, it is absolutely necessary for the ruling and opposition parties to thrash out the structural problems plaguing the still-feeble economy, particularly the dangerously high level of public indebtedness. One-on-one debate by party heads — the new debating system scheduled for a full-dress start this session — should serve as a golden opportunity for the public to assess the political leaders’ grasp of such weighty issues.

The first order of business in the Diet is to end this cat-and-mouse game and start discussing the budget and other key bills with the participation of both the ruling and opposition parties — in other words, to normalize proceedings in the national legislature. The buck stops at the ruling camp.

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