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Japan’s new political season will open in late September, when an extraordinary Diet session starts after the summer recess. Politics in the upcoming year will be marked by three potential turning points.

The first turning point is expected to come when the extra Diet session closes in December. Debate in the four months leading up to the end of the year will likely focus on public-works projects that are subject to a major review, legislation that would ban influence-peddling by lawmakers and a supplementary fiscal 2000 budget.

Major administrative reform will be implemented in January when the central bureaucracy is reorganized into a Cabinet office and 12 ministries and agencies. Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori’s second Cabinet, launched in June, is widely considered a caretaker government, and a major Cabinet reshuffle is likely in December in preparation for the government reform. With his leadership qualities in serious doubt and his Cabinet’s public-approval ratings remaining abysmally low, Mori could be forced out of office in December.

Second, another crisis for Mori could come around next April — if he remains in power — after an ordinary Diet session from January to March debates the fiscal 2001 budget. The opposition forces could also threaten a change of government through an intensive campaign against the Mori Cabinet during the Diet debate. The Diet session will be followed by an Upper House election in June or July.

If public support for the Mori Cabinet remains as weak then as it is today, dissidents in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and members of New Komeito, an LDP coalition partner, are likely to distance themselves from the LDP, forcing the Mori Cabinet to resign en masse. They would do so because the governing coalition could lose its majority in the Upper House election, as it did in the 1998 election.

Third, there is no denying the possibility that a Lower House election will be held simultaneously with the scheduled Upper House election. Or depending on the results of the Upper House election, the prime minister in power then could be forced to dissolve the Lower House for a general election, only a year after the previous election was held in June 2000. This would mark a fresh political start for the 21st century.

Widespread speculation on a change of government and a Lower House dissolution stems from the lack of Mori’s leadership qualities and the fragility of his administration, as Japan is gearing up to enter the 21st century.

Mori lost self-confidence after causing a public outcry with a series of inept remarks. He now avoids making impromptu remarks; instead he only reads from texts prepared by bureaucrats. Unless he dramatically changes his political style, the prime minister is likely to continue bearing the brunt of fierce opposition attacks and to enjoy little public support. Furthermore, his government will likely be shaken by criticism from its coalition partners and young LDP dissidents as well.

Nevertheless, the top opposition force, the Democratic Party of Japan, lacks the political strength to oust the Mori administration. The LDP, New Komeito and the New Conservative Party have managed to maintain their governing alliance but the four opposition parties — the DPJ, the Japan Communist Party, the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party — are in disarray and are in no position to threaten the Mori administration.

Politics in the coming year will also be affected by LDP power struggles between the old guard and reform-minded young dissidents, and among various factions, as well as by strife in the coalition between the LDP and New Komeito, and the insufficient strength of the divisive opposition parties, especially the DPJ.

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