Mrs. Fusae Ota, a former official of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, won in Sunday’s gubernatorial election of Osaka Prefecture, riding on the strength of the joint support of major political parties. The media have highlighted the fact that she is the nation’s first female prefectural governor. This is indeed worthy of note in this so-called male-dominated country, but with women already active in central and local administrations and assemblies, the gender of the winner, it seems, should not be the real focus of political attention.

The crux is the fact that Mr. Makoto Ajisawa, a university professor who was backed by the Japan Communist Party alone, pulled so close to Mrs. Ota, the candidate for whom the three coalition parties — the Liberal Democratic Party, the Liberal Party and New Komeito — and the Democratic Party of Japan, the biggest opposition party, joined forces to support. Mrs. Ota won 1,380,583 votes against the 1,020,483 garnered by Mr. Ajisawa — a margin of 360,1000.

To many observers, this gap must have been smaller than anticipated, given the joint support extended to Mrs. Ota by the major political parties. Uninformed people here and abroad might have been surprised at results showing that the Communists can single-handedly put on such an electoral performance in the world’s second-largest capitalist country. Sunday’s election results will hardly have provided the nation’s ruling-party leaders with sufficient comfort and confidence.

Therefore, they have been trying to draw their own conclusions from the Osaka voters’ verdict. Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi commented to the effect that the election result represented a certain degree of favorable public assessment of the tripartite coalition. In the same vein, Mr. Yoshiro Mori, the LDP secretary general, saw significance in the victory of the tripartite coalition’s candidate in the first major election since the coalition’s launch late last year. Leaders of the other coalition partners also made remarks intended to attribute the election results to the voters’ positive acceptance of the triumvirate.

In fact, however, the election outcome should be interpreted as representing the low public trust in all the major political parties, except the JCP, and in the coalition administration. The low level of voter turnout — at 44.58 percent, the lowest since the Osaka voters began choosing their governor in 1947 — appears to suggest that many voters simply refused to participate in the democratic politics dominated by the existing political parties. The coalition should rather sense a brewing crisis in the fact that they failed to motivate even half of the 6.84 million eligible voters to go to the voting booths despite their joint backing of such a fresh and attractive candidate as Mrs. Ota.

With a general election to be held sometime by the end of October, the nation’s political parties felt their fortunes were at stake in Sunday’s Osaka gubernatorial election. The coalition-party leaders are trying to attribute the electoral win to what they claim has been achieved by the coalition government. But this interpretation is unduly complacent. Of course, Mrs. Ota’s victory has provided Prime Minister Obuchi with wider elbow room in deciding the timing of the general election. The victory, however, is not so great as to definitively brighten either his own party’s or the coalition parties’ outlook for the coming election.

Mr. Tsutomu Hata, secretary general of the No. 1 opposition DPJ, was probably right in his reading of the Sunday election that the election results did not represent a broad public assessment of the coalition alliance’s performance in national administration. Coming from one of the top leaders of the party that joined the ruling parties in backing Mrs. Ota in the Osaka election, his rejection of the notion that the coalition’s track record was a contributing factor in the election should carry due weight.

Mr. Obuchi and other leaders of the coalition parties would be better advised to accept such an assessment honestly and start pondering how to win real public trust in government and politics. Their only and obvious choice will be to dissolve the Lower House at an appropriately early date for a general election.

The current coalition government was launched merely to secure a majority strength in the Diet. It was a clever way to make use of the simplest procedural principle: that of numerical superiority. But in the eyes of the public, the tripartite coalition lacks legitimacy — or a voter mandate. Holding an election is the only way to secure that legitimacy.

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