In an unprecedented development in Japanese political history, the opposition forces are boycotting all Diet proceedings to protest the ruling coalition’s handling of the controversial legislation for reducing the number of Lower House seats. The Democratic Party of Japan, the Japan Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party launched the boycott in an ordinary Diet session that began Jan. . Only the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its partners — the Liberal Party and New Komeito — are taking part in both Houses’ proceedings.

The trouble started when the ruling bloc moved to railroad the bill for cutting the number of Lower House proportional-representation seats by 20, in defiance of opposition protests. The bill was enacted when it was passed by the Upper House Wednesday, without committee debate. This was the first time the Upper House had passed a bill without such debate.

In other unprecedented action, Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi delivered a policy speech to the Diet without the presence of opposition parties. Ordinarily, at the outset of a Diet session, the prime minister gives a policy speech to plenary sessions of both houses and opposition leaders question him.

The sight of Obuchi delivering a policy speech to a chamber bereft of opposition lawmakers was bizarre, although the speech — unlike some of his previous ones — contained some substance.

The problem was that the ruling triumvirate handled the strange seat-reduction bill as if it were the most urgent legislative issue facing Japan, and with no regard for Diet rules and conventions. Objectively, there were no reasons for rushing it. Obuchi’s aides and LDP officials in charge of Diet affairs repeatedly asked Lower House Speaker Soichiro Ito to open the plenary sessions, no matter what happened, according to media reports. The officials were apparently aware of the abnormality of their scheme.

Some LDP executives and political pundits argue that the opposition forces should fight the ruling coalition by means of debate, instead of resorting to a boycott. However, the parliamentary boycott is widely accepted both in Japan and abroad as a means of opposition protest against the ruling-force tactic of railroading legislation.

Unlimited and prolonged boycott can prove suicidal, however. Usually, a House speaker mediates between the ruling and opposition forces to end a parliamentary boycott. Lower House Speaker Ito’s mediation in the current trouble failed because the ruling bloc refused to give up their insistence on an early enactment of the seat-reduction bill.

It is not entirely clear why Obuchi’s aides and LDP officials are so obsessed with getting this bill enacted. LP leader Ichiro Ozawa has been pushing strongly for the passage of the bill, citing an earlier LDP-LP agreement on the issue. Ozawa, who threatened to withdraw from the ruling alliance and/or to create a new party by merging his group with LDP conservatives unless the LDP kept its promise, has lost much of his influence in the LDP and the LP. For a time, he was considered unlikely to succeed in realizing his goal regarding the bill.

The question is: How did Ozawa manage to turn the tables and succeed in coercing the LDP to ram it this legislation through the Diet?

Political insiders speculate that Ozawa drew his strength from a group of LDP hawks who were hoping for his revival as a top conservative leader. In my opinion, the ruling forces would not have taken the rash action they took if Hiromu Nonaka had remained as chief Cabinet secretary in the present Obuchi Cabinet. The LDP-LP pact was only a private agreement in the ruling coalition, and Nonaka would have prevented action that contravened normal Diet customs.

How will the present chaos be settled?

The three major opposition parties are protesting the ruling forces’ outrageous action. As a condition for getting the Diet back to normal, DPJ leader Yukio Hatoyama is demanding an apology from the ruling camp for the political confusion and a dissolution of the Lower House for a snap election.

Government and LDP officials are unwilling to dissolve the Diet early, since the majority of respondents in opinion polls have blamed the ruling forces for the debacle. Some officials, however, have suggested that a public apology might be offered in the course of a Diet debate among party leaders over procedural mistakes and that Ito should resign to take responsibility.

These officials also believe that if the JCP-backed candidate wins or collects more votes than expected in the Feb. 6 Osaka gubernatorial election, the three-party opposition alliance is likely to collapse. This is because some DPJ officials who are incurably allergic to the JCP would feel threatened by increased JCP influence and would dissociate themselves from the alliance. Aside from the opposition alliance in the Diet, the JCP is fielding its own candidate in the election while the DPJ, the LDP and several other parties are running a joint candidate.

Media coverage of the political chaos has been unenthusiastic for some reason, and I find this disturbing.

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