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The Diet returned to normal Feb. 9, two weeks after the opposition forces started boycotting all proceedings to protest against the ruling bloc’s handling of a controversial bill to reduce Diet seats. The turmoil started when the three-party governing coalition passed the bill for cutting Lower House proportional-representation seats by 20 at a Lower House special committee meeting in the absence of opposition members. The impasse ended through the mediation of Lower House Speaker Soichiro Ito.

The priority task for the Diet in the current ordinary session is to enact the fiscal 2000 government budget, which features strong economic stimulus measures. Lawmakers of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, Japan Communist Party and Social Democratic Party refused to attend both Houses’ plenary sessions at the outset of the Diet session, in which Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi delivered his policy speech and opposition leaders were supposed to question him about his policies. This was the first time in modern Japanese political history that opposition forces boycotted a prime minister’s policy speech at an ordinary Diet session.

Meanwhile, the seat-reduction legislation became law when the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its partners — the Liberal Party and New Komeito — railroaded it through the Upper House without committee debate.

The ruling parties violated democratic principles when they debated a revision of the national election system, the foundation of parliamentary democracy, in the absence of opposition lawmakers. They were primarily responsible for the political impasse. The opposition parties, which recklessly boycotted Diet proceedings, were also responsible.

Article 41 of the Constitution says, “The Diet shall be the highest organ of state power, and shall be the sole lawmaking organ of the state.” The ruling and opposition forces paid little attention to this article and aggravated public distrust of politics. The central problem was the lack of political leadership, for which all political parties were responsible. Both the governing coalition and the opposition camp face this question: Is it possible to revive democratic politics? The only way to answer the question is to dissolve the Lower House for a snap election.

On Feb. 3, when the Lower House Budget Committee started debate in the absence of opposition parties, Obuchi greeted his 554th day in office, matching Masayoshi Ohira, No. 16 in length of service as prime minister. On Feb. 26, Obuchi will exceed former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita, his mentor, in length of tenure as prime minister.

Obuchi took over as prime minister from Ryutaro Hashimoto, who resigned to take responsibility for the LDP’s devastating setback in an Upper House election in July 1998. To remain in power, Obuchi forged an alliance with the Liberal Party and New Komeito last October. Since then he has devoted himself to the political survival of his administration.

Replying to opposition parties’ questions at plenary sessions of the normalized Diet, Obuchi said he established the coalition government in the belief that political stability was critically important. He expressed the hope that he would be able to implement his administration’s policies by strengthening unity of the alliance.

The coalition, however, is fragile, since the LP and New Komeito have basic policy differences over the Constitution, national security and other matters. The recent crisis stemmed in part from repeated threats by LP leader Ichiro Ozawa, a hardline conservative, to bolt the coalition.

Various opinion polls have demonstrated strong public criticism of the three-party alliance, and the criticism is showing no signs of abating. Furthermore, anti-New Komeito religious groups boycotted an LDP convention, which was held just before the opening of the Diet session. These groups are hostile to Soka Gakkai, the lay Buddhist organization that backs New Komeito. This shows that strong opposition to the tripartite coalition is smoldering in traditionally pro-LDP religious groups.

In the Osaka gubernatorial election and the Kyoto mayoral election, both held Feb. 6, candidates jointly backed by the ruling coalition and the DPJ, the top opposition party, defeated JCP-backed candidates. Obuchi, meanwhile, kept his promise with the LP by having the seat-reduction legislation enacted at the outset of the ordinary Diet session, and successfully prevented the LP from leaving the coalition. In addition, political observers say, victories in the two local elections gave Obuchi effective freedom in deciding to dissolve the Lower House whenever he pleases.

The real issue in the Osaka election, which produced Japan’s first woman prefectural governor, was not an LDP victory but a heated competition between New Komeito and the JCP, with both parties taking advantage of their strong voter bases. As a result of the election, New Komeito now has a stronger say in the ruling coalition. Despite a lower voter-turnout rate, the JCP collected 100,000 more votes than in the previous election, winning support from unaffiliated voters.

The Lower House is likely to be dissolved either in April, after the fiscal 2000 budget is enacted, or after Japan hosts a summit of major powers in Kyushu and Okinawa in late July. The current Lower House members are scheduled to complete their term Oct. 19, and a dissolution after the summit will leave little time until then.

If Obuchi dissolves the Lower House before the summit and the LDP suffers a severe loss in the election, he will be held responsible by LDP members and will lose the summit’s high-profile chairmanship. Obuchi, who is believed to be considering a dissolution after the summit, told the Lower House plenary session that he would not hesitate to call for a dissolution when time was ripe.

The most important factor that Obuchi will consider in deciding when to dissolve the Lower House will be the state of the economy. At a session of the Lower House Budget Committee, Obuchi said the biggest challenge for the government was to attain 1 percent growth in fiscal 2000 and stabilize the economy.

The business sentiment index for the last October-December quarter, released by the Economic Planning Agency Feb. 7, stayed in the plus column for the second consecutive quarter. However, the index worsened from the previous quarter, indicating that the economy was marking time.

Government officials say they see no need to change the goal of 0.6 percent real-term growth for fiscal 1999, which ends in March. There is little doubt, however, that it will be some time before full economic recovery starts. Ongoing corporate restructuring, as indicated by high unemployment rates, is likely to result in a decline in domestic demand.

Obuchi has five months at most before deciding on when to dissolve the Lower House. Results of the general election will reflect voters’ judgment on the ruling coalition.

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