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The sun may be setting on the administration of Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi. Recent polls indicate that the Obuchi Cabinet’s approval ratings have fallen sharply while its disapproval ratings have risen. The phenomenon is generally blamed on the continuing recession, a growing public-debt burden stemming from the government’s free-spending policies and the questionable ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party, the Liberal Party and New Komeito.

Government officials would no doubt contend that deficit financing based on mass bond issues is an unavoidable policy option aimed at putting the slow-moving economy back on recovery track. This option calls for a wide range of public-works spending, which gives no tangible benefits to consumers. There is growing discontent with the government among consumers who have difficulty making ends meet amid the recession.

Obuchi would likely argue that in parliamentary politics based on majority rule, it is essential for the LDP to maintain the three-party coalition in order to secure a majority in the Upper House.

But many Japanese wonder why the LDP does not take a stronger stand against a demand by the LP, a minor conservative party, that a specific schedule be set for amending Japan’s war-renouncing Constitution.

Others question the LDP’s policy of maintaining a coalition with New Komeito, which is backed by the lay Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai. To them, politics should be free from religious influences.

More responsible for the erosion of public support for the Obuchi Cabinet were a recent series of scandals involving police and the Self-Defense Forces, as well as the resignation of Financial Reconstruction Minister Michio Ochi for suggesting that smaller, weaker banks could receive lenient treatment in banking inspections. These problems increased public distrust of politicians and bureaucrats.

Obuchi aggravated the public uproar over the scandals by saying the police officials involved were “unlucky” to have been implicated. Obuchi should never have spoken these words. Perhaps he was confused by or weary of apparently never-ending scandals. People were naturally angered by Obuchi’s remarks.

Until recently, Obuchi had enjoyed relatively high popularity ratings, thanks to his “nice man” image. His popularity evaporated when he made his slip of the tongue. It would be difficult to repair the damage done to his reputation.

Amid the confusion, LP leader Ichiro Ozawa met with Obuchi and reportedly demanded that the LDP and the LP:

* Disband and form a new conservative party, preferably before the impending general election.

* Cooperate with each other in the election, if the above is not feasible.

* Conclude a new policy agreement that would set a schedule for constitutional amendments.

Obuchi turned down the demands, only saying he would be willing to consider LDP-LP cooperation after the election. Ozawa later met with LDP conservatives and renewed his on-again-off-again threat to leave the ruling coalition if his demands were not met.

Most LDP officials are reportedly ready to part company with Ozawa, since an LDP-New Komeito alliance, without the LP, would still retain a majority in the Upper House. It is uncertain, however, whether Ozawa will bolt the coalition, as he says. If he does, he will no longer be able to resort to his well-used threat to manipulate politics. In that case, the LP could disintegrate. On the other hand, if Ozawa were to stay in the ruling alliance, he would lose much of his political influence. There is growing speculation that Ozawa will leave the coalition.

Many LDP conservatives support the proposed LDP-LP merger to form a new conservative party, and it is uncertain how the political confusion over the proposal will be settled. If the governing coalition is hit by more confusion over constitutional amendments while constitutional study panels in both Diet Houses are debating the issue, the public will become disenchanted with the Obuchi administration. Obuchi should make a clear, objective judgment to avoid turmoil.

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