No. 6 — February 11, 2000


Weekly Review

--- by Barbara Wanner

Pundits who had maintained that Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi's days in office were numbered following the controversial decision to ram a Diet reform measure through the legislature February 2 have been forced to revise their forecasts. In a gubernatorial election in Osaka prefecture and a mayoral race in Kyoto, both held four days later, candidates backed by the three ruling parties — the Liberal Democratic Party, the Liberal Party and the New Komeito — trounced their opponents, who either ran as independents or were endorsed by the Japan Communist Party.

Experts say that the February 6 victories — in Osaka of Fusae Ota, Japan's first female governor, and in Kyoto of incumbent Mayor Yorikane Masumoto — gave the beleaguered Japanese leader a new lease on political life. These local races were regarded as a de facto referendum on the Obuchi administration, which had been losing support due to voters' apparent distaste for the opportunistic union of the three parties as well as for the heavy-handed tactics used to pass the legislation that will reduce lower house representation by 20 seats (see JEI Report No. 5B, February 4, 2000).

Even though voter turnout in Osaka was a record-low 44.6 percent and both winning candidates also were endorsed by the local chapters of the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition group, the media nevertheless portrayed the outcomes as victories for the tripartite government. Regardless of the dynamics between the ruling and opposition parties at the national level, candidates for local office often draw support from both sides of the aisle.

The fact that the DPJ, notwithstanding its reformist, slightly left-of-center policy prescriptions is, in reality, not that dissimilar philosophically from the conservative LDP and the centrist New Komeito may have made the joint endorsements of Ms. Ota and Mr. Masumoto seem less contradictory to voters. (The Liberal Party occupies a position on the far right of the political spectrum. The Social Democratic Party of Japan and the JCP with their pacifist, Marxist-based tenets constitute the left wing.)

Thus, lesser performances from Ms. Ota and Mr. Masumoto — or outright losses to JCP-backed or independent candidates — would have been construed as a repudiation of mainstream politics in general and of Mr. Obuchi's leadership in particular. The premier, in turn, would have faced increasing pressure to dissolve the Diet for general elections in early spring, some six months before the October 19 statutory deadline.

Mr. Obuchi no doubt also would have had to deal with an even more emboldened political opposition. The late January decision by the DPJ, the JCP and the SDPJ to boycott Diet deliberations in reaction to the ruling parties' reputedly "undemocratic" consideration of the seat-reduction bill not only made the Obuchi administration look bad but also threatened to wreak havoc with parliamentary business in the coming weeks.

But in the wake of the Osaka and Kyoto elections, the political tides seem to have turned in Mr. Obuchi's favor. As a consequence, the prime minister probably will not feel compelled to call elections until he believes it to be politically expedient — for example, after a winning performance as a global statesman at the summit on Okinawa of the leaders of the Group of Seven major industrial nations plus Russia in July.

Mr. Obuchi also may feel less inclined to bargain with the opposition over ending its boycott. As they did with the Diet reform bill, the ruling parties conceivably could use their dominance in both legislative chambers to push through the FY 2000 general account budget before the March 31 end of this fiscal year. While resorting to this strategy to secure passage of the seat-reduction bill proved unpopular with a consensus-oriented public, a take-charge approach that ensures timely action on an ¥85 trillion ($772.7 billion at ¥110=$1.00) pump-priming budget may be less offensive to voters — particularly if the opposition parties continue to refuse to participate in the legislative process. Mr. Obuchi and his lieutenants are acutely aware that the DPJ and its allies risk a backlash if voters decide that they eschewed their representative duties and held up action on a spending plan important to the economy.

The tables turned, the DPJ, the JCP and the SDPJ started scrambling to revise their strategy. When preliminary results suggested victories for Ms. Ota and Mr. Masumoto, DPJ chief Yukio Hatoyama announced that the opposition camp would return to the Diet if given a second chance to hear Mr. Obuchi's January 28 policy address as well as to engage in the customary postspeech questioning of the prime minister. Mr. Obuchi had delivered the speech that formally opened the current legislative session to a comparatively empty chamber because, for the first time in postwar history, the political opposition had refused to attend. The nonruling parties also had demanded that the tripartite government apologize for its railroading of the seat-reduction bill and that Mr. Obuchi promise to dissolve the parliament immediately for lower house elections. A humbled DPJ chief indicated that the opposition no longer would insist on these preconditions for ending its boycott.

Perhaps emboldened by the results of the February 6 polls, the Obuchi government still refused to compromise. Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki said at a February 7 news conference that the opposition parties were being unreasonable in demanding that Mr. Obuchi deliver his speech again. "The prime minister presented Japan's policy on January 28. It is basically wrong for him to do that over again at the request of the opposition parties," the government's top spokesperson argued.

Lower House Speaker Soichiro Ito ultimately broke the deadlock February 8 with a proposal that split the difference. Noting the ruling coalition's objections to repeating the premier's address and holding another question-and-answer period, Mr. Ito basically proposed forgoing the speech but proceeding with the opposition's traditional interpellation of the prime minister in a special lower house plenary session February 9, followed by a similar meeting in the upper house the next day.

Possibly worried that there might be some truth in Mr. Ito's warning that the DPJ-led Diet boycott could "end in losing the trust of the people," the largest opposition party accepted the speaker's conditions. The JCP and the SDPJ formally rejected the plan on the grounds that it did not appropriately admonish the ruling parties for strong-arming the Diet reform bill through parliament. Nevertheless, lawmakers from the two smaller opposition parties will attend the lower and upper house sessions, their leaders indicated.

With Mr. Ito's successful mediation, Mr. Obuchi and his advisers no doubt are breathing much easier knowing that they now can pass the FY 2000 budget in a truly representative manner. Lower house Budget Committee sessions are expected to resume February 14. Government officials are optimistic that the House of Representatives will pass the spending plan by the end of February, with upper house enactment anticipated in late March. Thus, at the end of the day, Mr. Obuchi once again was able to save his skin through a combination of good luck and shrewd political choices.

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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