Only three weeks ago, Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi’s tripartite coalition was in a celebratory mood after the opposition forces ended their boycott of the Diet and all proceedings returned to normal.
The Diet turmoil started when the alliance of the Liberal Democratic Party, the Liberal Party and New Komeito rammed through a bill for reducing the number of Lower House seats at the outset of the ordinary Diet session. No urgency surrounded the bill, and it was only presented to promote the coalition’s partisan interests.
When the Diet returned to normal, Obuchi no doubt was pleased that he had a freer hand in deciding when to dissolve the Lower House and call for a general election. Since then, however, a series of shocks have jolted his administration.
For a starter, Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara announced a proposal to impose a local tax on major banks operating in the metropolis. The Obuchi administration objected to the proposal in an effort to protect the banking industry. The public, however, overwhelmingly supports the proposal amid strong resentment against the banks, which pay scant interest on deposits while receiving mass infusions of public funds to help write off their bad loans. Bank executives continue to receive generous salaries, bonuses and retirement allowances, and have failed to implement strong restructuring programs. The proposed tax is legal, and there is no way the central government can stop its introduction.
Then Gov. Masayasu Kitagawa of Mie Prefecture withdrew support for Chubu Electric Power Co.’s plan to build a nuclear power-plant in the prefecture. The company later abandoned the plan.
The two governors’ decisions were widely viewed as reflecting public sentiment, while the Obuchi administration’s policies and strategies, including the Lower House seat-reduction bill, are seen as promoting partisan politics.
The Obuchi administration was later hit by more negative news.
Media reports said that by the end of last year, a total of 756 retired senior Defense Agency officials were hired by defense contractors in a practice known as “amakudari” (descent from heaven). This indicates collusion between the Defense Agency and defense contractors.
Furthermore, the oil-drilling rights of Arabian Oil Co., Japan’s top oil producer, in a major oil field in Saudi Arabia expired as negotiations with Riyadh failed. The problem stemmed mostly from Saudi Arabia’s change of policy regarding oil-drilling rights. The Obuchi administration and Arabian Oil have little responsibility for the debacle.
Then Michio Ochi, state minister and chairman of the Financial Reconstruction Commission, was forced to resign for suggesting the government had a lenient attitude toward smaller financial institutions when conducting banking inspections. It was unconscionable that Ochi openly acknowledged the collusion among politicians, bureaucrats and business executives, a problem that has long plagued Japan’s conservative governments. He made the remarks while attending a meeting sponsored by a fellow LDP lawmaker. Ochi’s resignation was not enough to solve the problem; Obuchi was also responsible for the confusion since he appointed Ochi as a member of his Cabinet.
The affair was followed by a police scandal. It was revealed that the chief of the Niigata prefectural police, the head of the National Police Agency’s Kanto Regional Police Bureau and other police officers were playing mah-jongg at a hot spring resort on the day a girl held captive for nine years was found safe in the prefecture, and continued to play after hearing the news. In addition, the officials agreed to have the Niigata prefectural police write false press releases to evade responsibility for the fiasco. At that time, the Kanto Regional Police chief was in Niigata for the purpose of conducting an inspection and raising morale following a rash of police scandals in other parts of Japan.
The senior police officials, who took nominal pay cuts and resigned, are expected to receive retirement allowances of 30 million yen to 40 million yen each. This has stirred strong public protests.
The shocking news of the past three weeks has changed the ruling coalition’s celebratory mood, despite the fact that the Obuchi administration is not responsible for all the events.
For a brief period after the Diet returned to normal, it looked as though the ruling coalition would coast to an easy victory in a general election. That is no longer true. There is likely to be a flood of votes against the ruling bloc by independent urban voters, who hold the key in a general election. To regain public support, the Obuchi administration must refocus its policy by establishing responsibility for wrongdoing in the government. The public simply won’t accept his mantra calling for economic recovery before all else.
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