Former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi died on Sunday without having regained consciousness after he was seriously incapacitated by a stroke April 2. He was 62. Mr. Obuchi’s death came before he could realize his cherished dream of hosting the annual G8 meeting in Okinawa and also before being able to confirm the sustainable recovery of the Japanese economy on which he had staked the fortunes of his administration.
In July 1998, when Mr. Obuchi took power as the successor of Mr. Ryutaro Hashimoto, his Liberal Democratic Party was only a plurality force in the Upper House, although in the Lower House it had managed to gain a majority by drawing in unaffiliated Diet members who had won in the 1996 general election. The LDP had failed to get a majority in that poll.
In such a Diet, even a bill cleared by the Lower House could be killed by an alliance of opposition parties in the Upper House. Upon assuming power, therefore, Mr. Obuchi was confronted with the difficult task of dealing with this handicap in order to attain as many goals as possible in the Diet.
That political situation coincided with a deepening sense of financial crisis. Despite the prevailing hostile political and economic environments, however, it was incumbent on the Obuchi administration to ensure legislation that would help steer the nation’s financial institutions out of the crisis. As a result, Mr. Obuchi and his party had to swallow all the substantial changes to those bills demanded by the opposition in tough negotiations between the ruling and opposition parties.
This method of securing Diet passage of bills is, in effect, a kind of partial ruling alliance, in which the ruling group talks with and then seeks cooperation from the opposition parties on each bill. When the governing party does not have a majority strength in the Diet, this is one way of ensuring the passage of a bill. But it is much too time-consuming. Moreover, compared with the ordinary coalition arrangement, under which minor partners play roles inside or outside the Cabinet, the ruling party is unable to exercise leadership or take the initiative as long as the opposition groups remain united.
In retrospect, Mr. Obuchi and other LDP leaders must have experienced a real sense of crisis when the opposition parties adopted a decision to force Mr. Fukushiro Nukaga, the then Defense Agency director general, to resign over a procurement scandal involving senior agency officials in November, 1998. Governing party leaders were suddenly faced with the prospect that the opposition groups could, if they wished, take similar action against the prime minister.
Inevitably, then, Mr. Obuchi stepped up his efforts to form a coalition with the Liberal Party in January last year and with New Komeito in October, thereby claiming absolute majorities in both houses of the Diet. In so doing, Mr. Obuchi’s coalition government had the budget bills for the current fiscal year debated and adopted in record time, as well as the guideline bills for Japan-U.S. defense cooperation.
But those legislative achievements under the coalition regime were criticized as well as praised because the coalition alliance was formed without seeking any endorsement from the voters. Many of them wondered why both the LP and New Komeito, which had roundly criticized the LDP in the preceding Upper House election, could now consent to go hand in hand with the Liberal Democrats. This suspicion persists. But the reason is obvious: In establishing the coalition, the motivation of securing majority strength in the Diet overrode the need to build up policy agreements.
Probably to Mr. Obuchi’s disappointment, the numerical superiority thus achieved did not necessarily lead to real consolidation of his power, nor to a stabilizing of the nation’s political situation. Ironically, the LP’s recurrent moves to break with the coalition was one of the major destabilizing factors. Furthermore, the need to maintain the fragile policy agreements among the ruling partners tended to stymie the timely implementation of much-needed reforms in administrative and other areas.
The fact that Mr. Obuchi eventually gave up the LP as a coalition partner, just hours before his collapse, symbolized the failure of the strategy of maintaining power primarily on the basis of numerical superiority. Mr. Obuchi was not the type of politician who sought the public’s support for his political principles and strategies. He climbed the political ladder as an outstanding coordinator.
It is a matter of great regret that Mr. Obuchi passed away before he could put himself fully to the test, as such a political leader, on the strength of what he had learned from his 20 constructive months in office.
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