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The death of former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, coming in the wake of the retirement of his mentor, former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita, marks the end of the “Takeshita politics” that wielded considerable clout within the Liberal Democratic Party.

The Obuchi faction, which succeeded the Takeshita faction, has had the largest following in the LDP. However, the factional lineup will likely change depending on the outcome of a Lower House election that will be held June 25. The biggest question for the LDP is whether it will be able to regain enough public confidence to win a majority.

The late Prime Minister Obuchi, who succeeded Ryutaro Hashimoto after he resigned by taking responsibility for the LDP defeat in the Upper House election held in the summer of 1998, settled a succession of major issues as if to make a clean break with “postwar politics.” After getting a bank bailout package through the Diet by swallowing opposition demands, he formed a three-way ruling coalition with the Liberal Party and New Komeito.

With his grip on power bolstered, Obuchi then secured passage of enabling bills for the updated Japan-U.S. defense cooperation guidelines. His expanded coalition also shepherded other key bills through the Diet, including a proposal to create a constitutional review council in both houses, a highly controversial measure giving official recognition to the Hinomaru flag and the “Kimigayo” anthem, and a bill allowing law-enforcement authorities to use wiretaps.

In the areas of foreign affairs and security policy, Obuchi also played a decisive role. During a visit here by South Korean President Kim Dae June in October 1998, the late prime minister opened a new era in Japan-South Korea relations by acknowledging the damage and sufferings that Japan had caused the South Koreans during its colonization of the Korean Peninsula.

While he was the foreign minister in the Hashimoto administration, Obuchi took the initiative on an international treaty banning antipersonnel land mines. His efforts bore fruit during his own administration when Japan signed and ratified the treaty.

In early 1999, when two spy boats from North Korea intruded into Japan’s territorial waters in the Sea of Japan, Obuchi ordered the Maritime Self-Defense Force to take police action for the first time. MSDF ships fired warning shots at the unidentified vessels to chase them out of the area. Earlier this year, the late prime minister sent a high-level mission to Pyongyang to resume the normalization talks that had been suspended for seven and a half years.

It was also Obuchi who decided to hold this year’s G8 summit in Okinawa. Having had a deep interest in Okinawan affairs since his college days, he prevailed over skeptics who had advised against an Okinawa summit because of possible security problems and the heavy U.S. military presence.

Aside from these defining achievements on the foreign and domestic fronts, the tripartite coalition had to spend a great deal of time and energy ironing out their policy differences, in spite of the fact that they controlled 70 percent of the Lower House.

The coalition as a whole did not receive solid public support, with opinion polls always showing higher rates of disapproval than approval. The partnership with New Komeito came under especially heavy attack from those who support the LDP. This undermined public confidence in the Obuchi administration.

Perhaps the final blow to the Obuchi coalition was the withdrawal of the Liberal Party following a failed meeting between Obuchi and LP leader Ichiro Ozawa, which was held just hours before the prime minister suffered a stroke.

Exactly what happened from the time he was hospitalized to the selection of Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori remains unclear. No wonder the succession process has been strongly and widely criticized for its lack of transparency. His hospitalization was kept secret for 22 hours, and it took 13 hours before the chief Cabinet secretary took over as a provisional prime minister. All this proves that a working crisis management system was absent at the top echelons of the central government.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki told a press conference that he had been specifically instructed by Obuchi in his hospital room to act as a provisional prime minister. But whether Aoki was able to receive such instructions from the comatose prime minister remains very much in doubt. Also under criticism is the “backroom deal” allegedly made by five LDP heavyweights, including Aoki, to pick Mori as the successor.

Lower House Vice Speaker Kozo Watanabe, who was a key member of the Takeshita faction, points out the opaqueness of the succession in an article he contributed to the June issue of Bungei Shunju magazine. “Mori would have been named the next prime minister,” he says, “even if the minimum democratic process — leaving the choice of the successor to the three LDP executives at a general meeting of LDP Diet members — had been followed.”

Watanabe also says Mori was able to become the prime minister because the “mechanism of LDP factional politics” worked in his favor. “If the people had had an option of their own under a two-party system,” he adds, “Mori would not have been elected prime minister. For the people of Japan, this leadership change was an unfortunate event.” The remarks, coming as they do, from one of Mori’s close friends hits home.

Opinion polls by the Prime Minister’s Office indicate growing public cynicism toward politics. In the poll taken in 1992, when Shin Kanemaru, then LDP vice president and chairman of the Takeshita faction, acknowledged he had received 500 million yen in donations from Sagawa Express Co., only 23 percent said they think “the people’s wishes are reflected in government policy.” The figure was the lowest of the previous 10 years. In 1993, when the non-LDP coalition government of Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa made its debut following the end of the LDP’s one-party rule, the percentage of those who gave the same reply increased to 30 percent. In subsequent years, however, the positive rating continued to drop. In 1998, when Obuchi took office, it fell to its lowest point on record — 15 percent. Those who said the people’s wishes “are not reflected in government policy” hit 80 percent of the total number of respondents.

The coming Lower House election will be the first since October 1996, when candidates were elected for the first time under the new voting system that combines single-member districts and proportional representation. The key issues to be contested by the ruling and opposition parties remain unclear, however. Normally, the LDP would aim to secure a majority in order to take power on its own. It seems, however, that the LDP is not confident of its ability to achieve that target. That leaves coalition government as the only way to stay in power. If that is the case, the LDP should make clear an acceptable framework of power-sharing in the essential policy areas of security, welfare and economic management. Without such a well-defined policy framework, the LDP would be tempted again to assemble an unprincipled coalition just to maintain a majority. Such a coalition would only heighten the public distrust of politics.

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