After what charitably could be described as a slow start, the year-old administration of Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi enjoys the highest public approval rating of any government in recent history. Equally surprising to critics who charged that the low-key, unassuming premier was not up to tackling Japan’s economic mess and would last no more than four months in office, Mr. Obuchi now appears to be a shoo-in for reelection to the presidency of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party when his term expires in late September. Moreover, with the New Komeito, the second-largest opposition party, poised to join the LDP-Liberal Party ruling union, Mr. Obuchi can be credited with creating the stable governing structure that Japan needs to put its economic house in order.
In early June, Tokyo was rife with rumors that Mr. Obuchi would take advantage of a ground swell of popular support as well as recent favorable economic data and dissolve the Diet for lower house elections. The prime minister and his party would emerge an even stronger political force, according to this view. As is usually the case in Japanese politics, however, the Obuchi government’s upbeat prospects belie the behind-the-scenes maneuvering and the turbulence that could produce very different political outcomes.
Notwithstanding Mr. Obuchi’s public statements urging the New Komeito to join the governing coalition, achieving this union will present some challenges. On key policies related to electoral reform and national security, in particular, the second-largest opposition party does not see eye-to-eye with the LDP and the Liberal Party. In addition, securing cooperation among the three parties in the next lower house elections — a process that in single-seat races will involve selecting one incumbent over another to run as the coalition-backed candidate — will not be easy since elected officials are known to jealously guard their turf.
The factors that Mr. Obuchi must weigh to determine when to call lower house elections, which must be held by October 2000, are equally complex. The polls could occur as early as this November or as late as next October, depending on economic, legislative and political developments. Too, while some opinion surveys indicate that voters prefer multiparty coalition governments and do not necessarily want the LDP to regain the dominant position it held before July 1993, electoral behavior remains a wild card. Today’s support for a triparty ruling union could swing abruptly to tomorrow’s distaste for the blatant opportunism that influenced such an arrangement.
All this suggests that, notwithstanding the Obuchi government’s rosy outlook, Japanese politics will continue to be buffeted by each party’s overriding desire to amass and hold power — and voters’ tolerance or rejection of that tendency. The LDP is unlikely to lose control of the nation’s highest office, but, in all probability, the largest party will have little choice but to continue to share power with one if not two coalition partners.
TOKYO UNVEILS NEW ECONOMIC PLAN by Douglas Ostrom
The Japanese government is famous or perhaps notorious for its innumerable councils, study groups, policy committees and the like. Hardly a day passes without one or more such panels issuing a report. At first glance, these documents appear to be of real importance, but subsequent events generally reveal them to be only a small piece of a much larger policymaking process. Not infrequently, the reports are completely ignored by those in a position to give the recommendations any life.
TOKYO MOVES ON JOBS BILL AS FY 1998 REVENUES FALL SHORT by Jon Choy
Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and his cabinet voted July 8 to send to the Diet a ¥542.9 billion ($4.5 billion at ¥120=$1.00) spending plan to create more than 700,000 temporary jobs and to fund other employment-related initiatives (see JEI Report No. 23B, June 18, 1999). This supplemental budget is notable for at least two reasons. Not only does it mark the first time that the government will directly hire people in response to a record-high unemployment rate, but it is not funded by borrowing. Instead, the Obuchi administration will draw on contingency reserves and surplus funds from FY 1998. Nonetheless, the extra budget will inflate the government's outstanding debt to a record high. Combined with FY 1998's shortfall in revenues, the projected debt has sent shivers through Japan's bond markets.
OBUCHI ENDORSES BEIJING'S WTO ENTRY, WALKS TIGHTROPE ON OTHER ISSUES by Barbara Wanner
Anxious to improve on their problematic meeting in Tokyo last November, Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and Chinese President Jiang Zemin reached an agreement July 9 on the People's Republic of China's controversial bid to join the World Trade Organization. The two leaders, meeting this time in Beijing, also reaffirmed their intention to build "a partnership toward the 21st century" that will entail expanded cooperation in the 32 areas ranging from the economy to the environment outlined in their last communique.
JAPAN MULLS NEW ODA PLAN by Marc Castellano
In September, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will publish a five-year plan outlining Japan's new priorities for extending official development assistance. As part of this exercise, Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi has directed the ministry to develop ways to gain public support for foreign aid at a time of increasingly stringent budget constraints. For virtually all of the 1990s, Japan has been the world's top provider of development assistance (see JEI Report No. 23B, June 18, 1999).
Conceding Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi a hard-won victory, the upper house of the Diet approved legislation July 8 to reorganize and slim down the central government. By January 2001, the current 22 ministries and agencies will be restructured as 13 central bureaucracies (see JEI Report No. 17B, April 30, 1999).