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Just a week remains until the curtain comes down on the 20th century. We are, in the true sense of the phrase, at the end of a century. Words like fin de siecle and millennium tend to be tossed about, but this year really can only be described as one of end-of-the-century blues.

In the final two months of the year in particular, the political situation has been violently shaken in Japan and the United States. In the U.S., the result of November’s presidential election between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore was left hanging as controversy over vote counting dragged on for more than a month. In the end, Bush emerged as the victor and the GOP will return to the White House for the first time in eight years.

Observing the sloppy counting of votes in Florida, many people have criticized the shameful situation as one that might be expected of a developing country, not in a so-called advanced nation. I disagree. Although there certainly was some ineptness, America is, and always has been, a union of regions, and politics reflects the particular histories of these states. In this sense, the U.S. is completely different from a nation like Japan, which has existed since ancient times as a united community of islands separated from the Asian continent.

Of course, when electing the nation’s leader, it cannot be a good thing for state vote-counting methods to remain unchanged and to differ so much from each another. But in view of the openness with which the election results were debated and a final decision was made, the system can be commended.

In contrast to the U.S., the cause of turmoil in Japanese politics in the final two months of the year is the fact that the process is hidden behind a veil and lacks openness. The main event was the rebellion of Liberal Democratic Party member Koichi Kato in the first half of November, but the root of the problem goes back to April, when then Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi fell seriously ill and was unable to perform his duties. His successor, Yoshiro Mori, was chosen by a small group of Liberal Democratic Party leaders plotting together behind closed doors.

For this reason, the legitimacy of Mori’s selection as prime minister has been questioned and, following his successive gaffes, his qualifications as a leader doubted. When the opposition parties submitted a motion of no-confidence in the Mori Cabinet to the Diet, Kato, a potential leader in the LDP who aimed to head the next administration, said that he would vote in favor of the motion and called for a change of government. Hence the uproar.

Kato’s rebellion ended with a whimper, however. Many ordinary people, who had hoped for an open showdown in the Diet, were bitterly disappointed when Kato’s rebellion was smothered by the power struggle in the LDP. The general public’s distrust of politics now runs deep.

After the suppression of Kato’s rebellion, Mori on Dec. 6 proudly launched a greatly reshuffled Cabinet. Despite the prime minister’s eagerness, however, the Cabinet’s public support dropped. It is now below the danger line of 20 percent.

To give the Cabinet more weight, Mori placed two former prime ministers in his Cabinet. In addition to Kiichi Miyazawa as finance minister, he appointed Ryutaro Hashimoto as minister in charge of administrative reform. It was a wonderful attempt at stage-managing, but the important actor is the one in the middle. Ironically, flanked by two heavyweights, the lightweight Mori stood out even more.

In addition, elated to be making a comeback after three years in the wilderness, Hashimoto is behaving in a grand style that is pushing the main actor, Mori, even further into the background. The reality is, therefore, that the appointment of Hashimoto to the Cabinet conversely is sowing the seeds of discord in the Cabinet.

So Mori’s reshuffled Cabinet will enter the new year, and the 21st century, in an extremely unstable condition, with a time bomb ticking in its midst. Mori is going to spend the New Year’s holiday worrying that, in politics, the future is pitch-dark.

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