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The June 25 Lower House election will be critical for Japan, since it will mark the first step in charting the nation’s course for the 21st century. The most important campaign issue is the makeup of the next government. These alternatives are possible: the existing tripartite coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party, New Komeito and the New Conservative Party; a new alliance made up of opposition forces; or a new coalition that combines the ruling and opposition parties.

Another important campaign issue, as far as economic management is concerned, is how to balance the budget in the coming years and how to fund the increasing social-security costs created by the graying population.

In the field of security, no less important issues involve constitutional amendments, legislation for dealing with military emergencies and revisions of the Japan-U.S. security system to deal with the changing international situation.

In short, the basic question for voters is whether the status quo should be maintained or changes should be sought.

It has been three years and eight months since the last election was held in October 1996. In the meantime, Japan has been ruled by five different governments, mostly coalitions. The first government was made up of the LDP, the Social Democratic Party, and the New Party Sakigake. The coalition rule was followed by a brief, single-party rule by the LDP, which was replaced by a coalition of the LDP and the Liberal Party. Then a coalition of the LDP, the LP and New Komeito took over, only to be replaced by a coalition of the LDP, New Komeito and the New Conservative Party. Three prime ministers, Ryutaro Hashimoto, the late Keizo Obuchi and Yoshiro Mori, have ruled Japan in the interim. Voters have had no chance to render judgment on changes of government.

Public distrust of politics has grown due to political parties’ total disregard of the voters’ will. This is clearly shown in public opinion polls, which indicate the majority of respondents disapprove of the LDP-LP-New Komeito and the LDP-New Komeito-New Conservative Party coalitions.

In the current campaign, the three ruling parties have raised doubts about uncertainties over the makeup of a coalition government that could be formed by the opposition forces.

Mori, who also serves as LDP president, says, “The question is whether Japan should be ruled by the existing responsible coalition of the three parties or by an opposition alliance, whose makeup is unknown.” New Komeito leader Takenori Kanzaki says, “Voters will choose between a stable center-right government and an opposition alliance, the source of anxiety and confusion.”

The opposition forces have not announced specific plans for a coalition government. Democratic Party of Japan leader Yukio Hatoyama says voters should choose between the status quo under the ruling tripartite coalition and reforms under a DPJ-led coalition government. Japan Communist Party Presidium Chairman Tetsuzo Fuwa says his party will consider joining consultations on a coalition government if the opposition forces win a combined majority in the Lower House.

Hatoyama has ruled out the possibility of forming an alliance with the JCP but has said nothing about ways of establishing a coalition government by ironing out policy differences with other opposition parties.

Under the circumstances, if the opposition forces win a combined majority and the DPJ tries to form a coalition government, the party will be unable to escape the charges of playing a “numbers game,” the same charges that it leveled against the three-party ruling coalition. Another important campaign issue is whether to give top priority to economic recovery or to push budget-balancing efforts at the same time. Japan posted an economic growth rate of 0.5 percent in fiscal 1999, the first positive growth in three years. The LDP seeks to promote economic recovery on a priority basis and has no intention of pushing a budget-balancing campaign in parallel. The DPJ has pledged budget-balancing efforts as part of its campaign promises.

DPJ leader Hatoyama says Japan should take “some bitter medicine,” not just sweet stuff. His emphasis on the importance of structural reform, which could erode voter support, is praiseworthy.

The DPJ has also promised a reduction in the minimum taxable income. Hatoyama also says Japan will need to raise its general consumption tax sometime in the future to fund increased public pension payments.

A major challenge for politics in the coming years is establishing a tax system that will support a viable social security system and maintain Japan’s economic vitality in an era of a graying population and declining birthrates.

The DPJ’s proposal for cutting the minimum taxable income has drawn no support from other opposition parties but has stirred sound campaign debate. The LDP has charged that the proposal is tantamount to bullying the underprivileged, but has not responded to charges of inaction to correct the unfair taxation system.

Meanwhile, debate on the Constitution is no longer taboo, after the Diet established constitutional review panels in both houses. Wide differences remain among the political parties on this issue.

In the ruling coalition, the LDP calls for the establishment of an independent Constitution, New Komeito is urging debate on the national charter, and the New Conservative Party is demanding constitutional amendments.

In the opposition camp, the JCP and the SDP are calling for protection of the Constitution. The DPJ is urging debate on the charter, including the war-renouncing Article 9. As part of constitutional reforms, DPJ leader Hatoyama is also calling for public elections to choose the prime minister. The LP seeks the establishment of a new Constitution.

These differences indicate forming a national consensus on the Constitution will be a time-consuming process. I believe that active debate in the campaign should be conducted on the Constitution. The debate involves the raison d’etre of the Self-Defense Forces and the Japan-U.S. security system, as well as Japan’s contribution to international security arrangements.

In the past three and a half years, public distrust of politics has grown as a result of frequent political realignments and the emergence of successive coalition governments. Rule by coalition governments that have not received voter approval has led to an increase in the number of voters without party affiliation. These people will have a decisive vote in the coming election.

Politics based on expedients has weakened Japan’s vitality on the international and domestic fronts. To revive this vitality, individual political parties should formulate specific policy measures for drastic reforms on the basis of their clear visions for the future.

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