No. 5 — February 4, 2000


Weekly Review

--- by Barbara Wanner

With the lower house's January 27 passage of a controversial Diet reform bill and the upper house's February 2 enactment of the measure, Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi succeeded in holding together his shaky triparty government, composed of the Liberal Democratic Party, the Liberal Party and the New Komeito. The Liberal Party, the smallest member, had threatened to bolt from the coalition if Mr. Obuchi did not make good on his promise to act on legislation to scrap 20 of the 200 proportional representation seats in the 500-member House of Representatives soon after the January 20 start of the 150-day regular Diet session (see JEI Report No. 1B, January 7, 2000).

In the final analysis, though, the bill's passage may represent a Pyrrhic victory for the already-embattled Japanese leader. In January, public approval ratings for his nearly four-month-old tripartite administration slid another 4 percentage points to 39 percent, according to the major daily Asahi Shimbun. The problem concerns legislative tactics as much as the bill's substance. The ruling parties used their numerical strength in both chambers (see Table) to ram the seat-reduction bill through the Diet. In consensus-oriented Japan, such strong-arm strategies invariably play poorly with voters and also usually incite the political opposition.

Party Membership in the Diet, January 14, 2000



Ruling Parties

Liberal Democratic Party



New Komeito



Liberal Party



Opposition Parties

Democratic Party of Japan



Japan Communist Party



Social Democratic Party of Japan



Independents/Minor Parties









Source: Kyodo News Wire Service, January 14, 2000.

This certainly was the case immediately following the lower house vote when, in a rare display of opposition unity, the Democratic Party of Japan, the Social Democratic Party of Japan and the Japan Communist Party declared a boycott of all future Diet deliberations. The full import of their threat was apparent the following day when Mr. Obuchi delivered the Japanese version of the State of the Union address to a legislative body devoid of nearly one-third of its members. For the first time in postwar history, the political opposition had refused to attend the premier's customary Diet-opening speech.

In view of the importance that the Obuchi government has attached to timely passage of a FY 2000 general account budget loaded with additional fiscal stimulus — not to mention the 90-odd other bills slated for consideration during the current session — the opposition boycott threatens to wreak havoc with Diet business in the coming weeks. That evidently is the goal of the DPJ, the SDPJ and the JCP. As was the case with the Diet reform measure, the ruling parties could use their dominance in both legislative chambers to push through the FY 2000 budget before the March 31, 2000 end of this fiscal year. For all intents and purposes, however, another display of such decidedly undemocratic behavior would be political suicide to coalition lawmakers, given the importance of the new spending plan to the economy's performance and, by extension, to voters. While lower house elections must be held on or before October 19, 2000, the political opposition has created conditions that make it increasingly unlikely that Mr. Obuchi can hold out that long.

During the recent Diet deliberations, ruling party proponents of the seat-reduction bill had attempted to justify their railroading tactics by emphasizing the timeliness of the measure. The legislation would lower election expenses at a time when companies nationwide are cutting payrolls and trimming other costs, they argued. The SDPJ and the JCP countered that the bill was nothing more than an attempt by the ruling parties to reduce the ranks of opposition-party members in the Diet. The three main opposition groups are the principal beneficiaries of the proportional representation system, which awards lower house seats according to each party's share of the total vote.

Unlike its opposition brethren, the DPJ is on record as supporting a 50-seat reduction in proportional representation on the grounds that such a change would further systemic reform (see JEI Report No. 3B, January 21, 2000). On two points, however, the Democrats agreed wholeheartedly with the Socialists and the Communists — namely, that the seat-reduction bill was considered by the Diet in an unrepresentative manner and that opportunism influenced the coalition's tactics. Simply put, the DPJ saw in the Obuchi government's much-publicized internal disagreements over Diet reform and roughshod handling of the legislative proceedings a chance to make the ruling parties look bad.

The controversy surrounding the Diet reform bill has been building almost since the Liberal Party presented it as a condition for joining hands with the LDP in January 1999 (see JEI Report No. 3B, January 22, 1999). Sounding not unlike the left-of-center DPJ, the ultraconservative Liberal Party had championed a 50-seat cut as a way to expedite the transformation of Japanese politics into a U.S.-style two-party system. But New Komeito lawmakers, most of whom also earned their jobs through proportional representation, objected strongly to the plan (see JEI Report No. 38B, October 8, 1999). In order to woo the New Komeito into the government, the LDP and the Liberal Party agreed — the latter extremely reluctantly — to scale back the original seat-reduction plan. The three-party compromise called for a 20-seat decrease by the next lower house elections, with the remaining 30 seats to be eliminated at some unspecified future time.

After repeated threats and histrionics during the closing days of the 1999 Diet session by disgruntled and aggressive Liberal Party chief Ichiro Ozawa, the Obuchi administration promised to pass the revised plan at the beginning of this year's regular Diet session. Interestingly, the seat-reduction bill that the lower house approved January 27 does not commit lawmakers to the additional 30-seat cut — an omission that the Liberal Party presumably will not accept without yet another fight, further exacerbating the tumult in Japan's political world.

When it became clear that the opposition parties were prepared to resort to drastic, politically damaging measures, Lower House Speaker Soichiro Ito delayed the start of proceedings January 27 in a last-minute attempt to broker a compromise. His intervention failed when the ruling parties proved intractable in their demand for a vote that day. Some pundits have proposed that Mr. Obuchi was concerned that further delays would prompt another of Mr. Ozawa's threats to pull out of the coalition, a ploy that ultimately would interfere greatly with the Diet's timetable for consideration of the budget and other important matters.

In addition to boycotting Diet proceedings, an agitated political opposition literally has taken to the streets in an effort to rally the public against the triparty governing arrangement. "We will not participate in the budget debate unless the ruling camp mends its ways," DPJ chief Yukio Hatoyama charged at an impromptu gathering in Tokyo the evening the bill passed the lower house. "We will get back the essence of democracy in the next election," he later told reporters.

Pointing to the political expediency that had influenced the revision of the Liberal Party's original bill, DPJ Secretary General Tsutomu Hata declared that "the ruling bloc just wants to maintain the coalition and nobody is thinking about the [substance of] the bill." The Democrats' second-in-command, who led the nation briefly in 1994, then predicted that April 2 was the "highly likely" day for lower house elections in an apparent effort to create public expectations that the LDP, the Liberal Party and the New Komeito, indeed, would be forced from the helm sooner rather than later.

To the surprise of some observers who now see a very rocky road ahead for the triparty union, the Obuchi government has continued to nix the opposition's demands on the seat-cut bill. Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki rejected Mr. Hatoyama's call for an apology by the ruling parties for their handling of the legislation as well as his request for talks on the timing of the lower house elections. "We proceeded with everything while observing Diet rules," Mr. Aoki told a news conference January 31. "We have no intention of apologizing and we do not plan to hold talks on the premise that we were wrong."

For his part, Mr. Obuchi termed "very regrettable" the opposition's refusal to engage in the question-and-answer period that typically is held after a prime minister's policy address. This was the first time since 1966 that the opposition parties did not participate in the so-called interpolation, which had been slated to begin January 31.

For that matter, Mr. Obuchi's Diet speech seemed to fall flat in the absence of a full contingent of upper and lower house lawmakers. As anticipated, the prime minister underscored his administration's commitment to secure enactment of the record-breaking ¥85 trillion ($708.3 billion at ¥120=$1.00) FY 2000 general account budget by March 31 and generally to do whatever is required to realize 1 percent real economic growth in the coming fiscal year. Mr. Obuchi also pledged to ensure a successful July summit of the Group of Seven industrial nations plus Russia, which will be hosted by cities on Okinawa and on Kyushu. This is necessary to fulfill Japan's responsibility as a member of the international community, he said.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of the address — although it received virtually no Western media coverage — was the emphasis on more widespread English-language education. Borrowing from the recommendations made earlier in January by a special advisory panel on the 21st century, Mr. Obuchi pronounced the need to change Japanese society into one in which individuals can demonstrate their abilities and "contribute to the dignity of the state." He further explained: "I believe the relationship between individuals and the public good should cease to be a vertical one and become more of a level one, and that the two should build a relationship of cooperative governance through joint efforts." The prime minister noted that the government was preparing to submit to the Diet various bills that would provide the backbone for such a turnaround in Japanese society. As forward-looking as these proposals seem, political observers are betting that with the troublesome current political backdrop, none of them will see the light of day.

The views expressed in this report are those of the author
and do not necessarily represent those of the Japan Economic Institute

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