No. 14 — April 7, 2000

 

Weekly Review

OBUCHI'S STROKE, LIBERAL PARTY'S SPLIT CAUSE SHORT-LIVED POLITICAL UPHEAVAL
--- by Barbara Wanner

Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi's stroke late in the evening of April 1 and subsequent slide into a coma jolted the Japanese political world, which already was trying to sort out the implications of Liberal Party chief Ichiro Ozawa's announcement earlier the same day that the Liberal Party had broken with its ruling coalition partners, the Liberal Democratic Party and the New Komeito. However, the powers-that-be in the LDP moved with uncharacteristic speed to prevent the emergence of a potentially destabilizing political vacuum.

In quick order, Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki, acting on Mr. Obuchi's go-ahead, assumed the stricken leader's prime ministerial duties on an acting basis the morning of April 3. After consultations with constitutional experts, Mr. Aoki decided that the cabinet should resign en masse to make way for the selection of a successor to Mr. Obuchi. That occurred at an emergency cabinet session the evening of April 4. In the meantime, support had coalesced behind longtime LDP insider Yoshiro Mori, the party's number two in his position as secretary general, to succeed Mr. Obuchi as the LDP's leader and, by extension, as prime minister. Liberal Democrats formally approved Mr. Mori's elevation to the party presidency the morning of April 5. That afternoon, the House of Representatives elected him to lead Japan.

A heavy work load in recent weeks may have been too much for Mr. Obuchi, who has a history of heart problems. In addition to the nation's economic travails, problems in U.S.-Japan trade and security relations and the demands of planning the July 21-23 summit of the leaders of the Group of Seven industrial nations plus Russia on Okinawa, the former prime minister was deeply involved in managing the crisis caused by the March 31 eruption of Mount Usu in southwestern Hokkaido. On top of this came Mr. Ozawa's decision to split from the ruling coalition after 14 months of an often-troubled political marriage of convenience.

The departure of the Liberal Party, while highlighting the flimsiness of the triparty union, in and of itself is unlikely to undermine the LDP-New Komeito government. The two parties together have 315 seats in the Diet's powerful lower house, a comfortable 62 more than the 253 needed to control this 500-member chamber (see Table). Even politically, Mr. Ozawa's departure probably will not hurt Mr. Mori. The outspoken, frequently abrasive leader of the small, right-wing group so often had threatened to walk that the common reaction of many lawmakers and commentators to his decision finally to make good on his words simply was to shrug and say, "so what else is new?"
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Party Membership in the Diet, March 24, 2000

Lower
House

Upper
House

Ruling Parties

Liberal Democratic Party

267

107

New Komeito

48

24

Liberal Party

39

11

Opposition Parties

Democratic Party of Japan

96

57

Japan Communist Party

26

26

Social Democratic Party of Japan

13

14

Independents/Minor Parties

13

12

Vacancies

1

1

Total

500

252

Source: Kyodo News Wire Service, March 24, 2000.

The potential undoing of the LDP-New Komeito government, some experts suggest, ultimately could be public dissatisfaction with its economic policies (see JEI Report No. 13B, March 31, 2000). A March 22 survey by Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan's major dailies, indicated that for the first time in 11 months, the disapproval figure for the Obuchi cabinet exceeded its support rate, soaring from 35 percent in February to 45 percent in less than a month. Asked to pick one of five reasons why they did not back the government, 20 percent of the respondents, the largest group, cited Mr. Obuchi's policies. When pressed to list one negative aspect of his administration, 26 percent mentioned its general economic initiatives, and 17 percent pointed to the former premier's "political stance." In the wake of Mr. Obuchi's stroke, though, pundits revised their assessment of the LDP's prospects in the upcoming lower house elections, suggesting that the Liberal Democrats might benefit from a "sympathy vote."

Mr. Ozawa's party, in contrast, probably will be hurt more than helped by his decision to pull out of the government. For one thing, the Liberal Party's 50 legislators splintered. Eleven lower house lawmakers formed the Conservative Party, which joined the LDP and the New Komeito in the coalition government headed by Mr. Mori. Included in the group are former Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu, former Home Affairs Minister Takeshi Noda and Transport Minister Toshihiro Nikai. The Liberal Party's 11 upper house members agreed March 30 to remain united, but they could not decide whether to hang tough and follow Mr. Ozawa or join the lower house renegades.

Thus, the Liberal Party, which suffered a demotion of sorts when the larger, centrist New Komeito joined the Obuchi administration last fall (see JEI Report No. 39B, October 15, 1999), will become even more marginalized. Equally important, if not more so, without the LDP's assistance, Mr. Ozawa's shrunken, nonaligned right-wing group likely will be decimated in the House of Representatives polls. In fact, it was the LDP's unwillingness to cooperate with the Liberal Party in planning for the much anticipated elections that caused Mr. Ozawa to walk.

Liberal Party leaders had demanded that the LDP "coordinate candidates" in 16 of the 26 single-seat districts in which both parties have incumbents or plan to field contenders. Such an arrangement would have required the LDP to pull its candidates in those 16 districts and agree to back the Liberal Party's rivals. (Representation in the lower house is determined by 300 first-past-the-post races; the remaining 200 lawmakers are selected according to their parties' proportional shares of the vote totals.) The LDP flat-out refused to make that sacrifice.

Mr. Ozawa also was said to be dissatisfied with the pace of implementing policy agreements that had served as the foundation for the triparty alliance. When it joined the LDP government in January 1999, the Liberal Party insisted on a controversial Diet reform plan that would have reduced proportional representation in the lower house by 50 seats. The New Komeito, more than half of whose legislators had won their seats through this electoral mechanism, strongly objected to the idea. Thus, in order to bring the New Komeito on board last October, the LDP was forced to split the difference. It proposed the initial elimination of 20 lower house proportional seats — a change approved at the start of this year's Diet session (see JEI Report No. 5B, February 4, 2000) — followed "eventually" by a cut of 30 seats from both single-seat districts and the proportional representation list.

While the Liberal Party never was enamored with the compromise, it agreed to disagree with its partners for the sake of keeping its place at the governing table. But the fact that the hawkish political organization also clashed with the dovish New Komeito on security-related matters apparently proved to be too much for the ideological Mr. Ozawa. The two parties were at odds over whether to ease the restrictions on the Self-Defense Forces' participation in United Nations-sponsored peacekeeping activities. Mr. Ozawa's group argued that these restraints needlessly limited the SDF's ability to play a meaningful role in U.N. peacekeeping operations. The New Komeito fought efforts to loosen the conditions, arguing that to do so risked violating the spirit of Japan's war-renouncing constitution.

Finally, Mr. Ozawa, citing the Obuchi government's worrisome slide in public opinion surveys, claimed that he did not want his party to go down with the ship in the upcoming elections. As noted, though, Liberal Party members, many of whom lack the well-developed grass-roots support organizations of LDP politicians or the backing of the New Komeito's Soka Gakkai (Buddhist) devotees, likely will fare even worse running as candidates from a nonruling party.

Mr. Obuchi had said that he would prefer to wait until after the G-8 summit to hold elections for the lower house; these must take place before October 19. Mr. Mori no doubt will try to stick to that game plan. As alarmed as the LDP leadership might have been by the increase in public disapproval of the Obuchi cabinet, opinion surveys suggest that voters, too, are in no rush to select new representatives. A late March Asahi Shimbun poll reported that 53 percent of the respondents thought there was no need for Mr. Obuchi to call lower house elections immediately, up from 45 percent in a February survey.

Voters may have lost confidence in the Liberal Democrats, but apparently they still are not sure which party they want at the helm. Such uncertainty is all the more reason for Mr. Mori to hold off calling the lower house elections for as long as possible. But while the go-slow approach may appeal to the Japanese, who, as a nation, have proved reluctant to embrace dramatic changes, this pace may frustrate American policymakers anxious to resolve what have become drawn-out disputes over Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp. charges (see note in this issue) as well as Japan's funding for locally based U.S. forces and the relocation of a U.S. Marine Corps heliport on Okinawa (see JEI Report No. 12B, March 24, 2000).

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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