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All proceedings in the current ordinary Diet session are going smoothly. The lull is in stark contrast to a period of turmoil from late January to early February triggered by the opposition boycott of the Diet over the ruling bloc’s railroading of a bill for cutting the number of Lower House seats by 20. During the period, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, Liberal Party and New Komeito defied protests and enacted bills in the absence of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, the Japan Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party.

The fiscal 2000 government budget passed the Lower House in late February and is certain to be enacted by the Diet before fiscal 1999 ends March 31. A political lull may seem to prevail over the nation, but the appearance is deceptive. Japan faces a host of problems at home and abroad, and the present condition is unlikely to continue indefinitely.

First, a major pending problem is the timing of a Lower House dissolution for a snap election. A general election must be held before Oct. 19, when the sitting Lower House members’ term expires. As soon as the budget is enacted sometime this month, all political parties and lawmakers will start making preparations for the election. Widespread speculation on the timing of the election has focused on April, May-June, sometime after the Group of Eight summit in Okinawa in late July, and October, when the terms of Lower House members expire.

It is up to Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi to decide when to dissolve the Lower House and call for a general election. His decision will depend on the popularity of his government and the pace of economic recovery. The low popularity ratings of Obuchi’s three-party coalition government and economic uncertainties make it difficult to predict the timing of the election.

In the middle of 1999, the popularity ratings of the Obuchi administration shot up to around 50 percent from about 20 percent in the summer of 1998, when his original Cabinet was inaugurated. However, the ratings have been tumbling since Obuchi established a three-party government last October by accepting New Komeito as a new partner in his coalition.

The three parties now have 350 seats in the 500-seat Lower House, controlling 70 percent of the chamber. Critics have said the coalition was created to win a political numbers game in the Diet, without substantial discussions on party doctrines and policies. In the half year since its inauguration, the three-party coalition has often exposed weaknesses resulting from makeshift policy agreements and the strategy of building a majority at all costs.

The alliance has also become arrogant due to its absolute majority. It has often ignored the opinions of minority parties and rammed through bills, taking advantage of its numerical strength.

Last month, Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara announced a plan to impose a size-based local tax on major banks. In addition, Gov. Masayasu Kitagawa of Mie Prefecture withdrew support for Chubu Electric Co.’s plan to build a nuclear power plant in the prefecture. The governors’ defiance of the central government drew strong public support. Voters are growing critical of not only the coalition government, which is reminiscent of the wartime Imperial Rule Assistance Association for its political strength, but also the opposition forces, which have failed to put up effective opposition to the ruling alliance. All Japanese politicians, the ruling alliance and the opposition camp alike, should realize this and do some soul-searching.

A series of recent scandals involving the central bureaucracy have seriously eroded public confidence in politicians and bureaucrats and has stirred nihilism among the public.

I was shocked by the recently disclosed misconduct of police officials in connection with the discovery of a girl held captive for nine years in Niigata Prefecture. Police and the National Public Safety Commission were totally lacking in the sense of responsibility. The whole affair is symbolic of the end-of-the-century systemic failure affecting the whole nation.

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