Two weeks have already passed since the reins of government shifted from Keizo Obuchi to Yoshiro Mori. Nothing surprising has come out of recent opinion polls, which have generally shown that the new government is approved by about 40 percent of the public and disapproved by some 30 percent. A survey by NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation), in particular, showed 39 percent of the respondents approving of the Mori Cabinet and 31 percent disapproving, while 30 percent said they didn’t know.
The initial approval rate of most Cabinets in the past has been around 40 percent. The Cabinets headed by Kakuei Tanaka and Morihiro Hosokawa enjoyed unusually high approval rates of 60 percent and 70 percent, respectively, at their inception, while the Obuchi Cabinet started with a low approval rate of less than 30 percent. Support for the Obuchi government shot up to nearly 50 percent last August when the financial crisis ended, but dwindled to nearly 30 percent when a coalition government was formed by the Liberal Democratic Party, the Liberal Party and New Komeito.
If these past records are any yardstick, the Mori government started in a passable manner, and what it has accomplished during the past two weeks may be described as either smooth or unexciting. It may be that the sympathy felt for former Prime Minister Obuchi, who is still in coma, has given additional support to Mori.
It must not be forgotten, however, that the Mori Cabinet is, by its very nature, a stopgap government, pending a dissolution of the House of Representatives and general elections.
Moreover, there was a conspicuous lack of transparency in the process of selecting Mori to head the government. It may be no exaggeration to say that while Obuchi was comatose, five political bosses conspired behind closed doors to choose Mori as the de facto head of government.
The next question is when the Lower House will be dissolved and general elections called. Obuchi was hunting for the most advantageous time for both the government and the ruling party before the Lower House’s current term expired on Oct. 19. But his unpopularity, the prolonged recession and recurring police scandals had prevented Obuchi from settling on a good time, which in turn gave rise to the speculation that the general elections would be delayed until after the G8 summit meeting to be held in Okinawa in July.
With Obuchi stepping down and Mori coming to power, however, it now appears inevitable that the Lower House will be dissolved and the general elections called at an early date. Specifically, it seems almost certain that the elections will take place either on June 18 or June 25.
The opposition parties have long demanded that the government dissolve the Lower House and call general elections at the earliest possible date. Their reasoning has been that the government must submit to the vote of the citizens, because it has undergone major changes: First, it was a single-party Cabinet of the LDP, which became a coalition with the LP in January last year and then became a tripartite coalition with New Komeito last October.
The coalition, on the other hand, has sought a time most favorable to the government and its parties, resulting in a further delay.
Further delay is no longer possible, however, because the head of government has changed, and because one component of the coalition has shifted from the LP to the Conservative Party, a smaller group of defectors from the LP.
A good opportunity has presented itself with the transition from Obuchi, who had been losing popularity and resigned due to illness, to Mori, who appears to be full of vigor. It is only natural for the coalition parties to take advantage of this opportunity and call general elections as soon as possible. On the other hand, the opposition parties have no reason to disagree with that decision because that is exactly what they have been demanding. Thus, it appears certain that the Lower House will be dissolved for general elections at an early date.
Officially, however, specific dates have not been set. It is imperative that important budget-related bills be passed before the current session of the Diet adjourns on June 16. Moreover, consideration must be given to the Emperor’s tour of Europe scheduled for late May and the Okinawa summit toward the end of July.
Taking all these factors into consideration, there appear to be only two alternatives: (1) a public announcement will be made on June 6 that the elections will be held on June 18, or (2) the announcement will be put on the official gazette on June 13 for a vote on June 25.
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