No. 15 — April 14, 2000

 

Weekly Review

MORI CONSIDERED CARETAKER; JUNE ELECTIONS POSSIBLE
--- by Barbara Wanner

Yoshiro Mori's easy victory in the April 5 Diet vote to select a successor to Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, who remained comatose following a stroke three days earlier, belies a powerful undercurrent of political activity that could end the new government as soon as mid-June. Mr. Mori included some upbeat, inspirational prose in his April 7 inaugural speech to lawmakers, pledging to achieve a "rebirth of Japan" through policies aimed at economic recovery and education reform. However, the former secretary general of the Liberal Democratic Party, which governs Japan in cooperation with the New Komeito and the just-formed New Conservative Party, is regarded as a mere caretaker, an opinion that has prevailed since he assumed power.

The LDP leadership's closed-door selection of Mr. Mori, who is known more for his behind-the-scenes political skills than for his leadership aspirations or his broad policy expertise, plus only three days later, the deliberate, on-the-record speculation by some party doyens that lower house elections would be held in June all but announced to the nation and the world that the new premier simply is expected to keep the government running. The rapidity of Mr. Mori's April 5 reappointment of the very same individuals who had served in the Obuchi cabinet (see Table 1) — and who had resigned en masse barely 24 hours earlier — further communicated a message of more of the same.

Moreover, the absence of original ideas in Mr. Mori's parliamentary address reinforced his custodial image. For example, his call for Japan's "rebirth" was a rehash of Mr. Obuchi's late October 1999 speech convening the fall special Diet session (see JEI Report No. 42B, November 5, 1999). No doubt, though, at this unusual time in Japanese history, the new prime minister and his advisers saw political benefits in pushing the theme of policy continuity.

Before Mr. Obuchi was stricken by a cerebral hemorrhage, he had said that he would prefer to call the lower house elections after the July 21-23 summit of the leaders of the Group of Seven major industrial nations plus Russia, which will be held on Okinawa. By law, these elections must take place on or before October 19. Mr. Mori certainly has the authority to wait until then, and he may, indeed, do just that if public opinion polls gave his government low marks.

Although a survey conducted by Asahi Shimbun indicated that the public approval rating of the Mori cabinet was 41 percent versus the 36 percent support figure for the Obuchi government a month earlier, some commentators nevertheless have argued that voters may hold Mr. Mori's administration accountable for problems that arose in his predecessor's final days in office. In particular, the central government has been criticized for its flawed handling of the crisis caused by the eruption of the Mt. Usu volcano in southwestern Hokkaido.

March surveys also showed that people were dissatisfied not only with the Obuchi government's inability to get the economy on a sustained recovery track but also with its heavy reliance on public works spending to achieve that outcome (see JEI Report No. 14B, April 7, 2000). Since Mr. Mori has emphasized his plan to stay the economic policy course laid out by his predecessor, voters might transfer their feelings of frustration and discontent to the new cabinet, particularly if the gross domestic product figures for the first quarter of 2000 (which will be released in early June) are not as robust as economic policymakers have hinted they will be.

By the same token, some ruling party strategists believe that by calling the elections in short order, the Liberal Democrats may benefit from voters' sympathy for Mr. Obuchi's condition and the circumstances that propelled Mr. Mori to the nation's top leadership position. These party insiders apparently are hoping for a replay of the LDP's huge victories in both the upper and lower house elections in 1980, when voters, presumably saddened by the sudden death of Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira, threw their support behind LDP candidates.

But by no means is this strategy without risk. In 1980, the nation had not been mired in recession or something very close to that situation for most of a decade. Voters easily could blame Mr. Mori for Japan's economic woes and other ills.

People evidently also are angry over the failure of senior LDP officials to disclose Mr. Obuchi's hospitalization for nearly a day. The former premier was diagnosed as possibly having suffered a stroke after he entered Tokyo's Juntendo University Hospital at about 1 a.m. April 2. However, Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki was not told of Mr. Obuchi's condition until four hours later. Mr. Aoki and the former premier's senior staff then basically lied to reporters in briefings at 10 a.m. and noon April 2, telling the press corps that Mr. Obuchi had received no visitors that morning and had been "studying policy at the official residence." Mr. Aoki then proceeded to spend most of the afternoon conferring with cabinet officials about what to do if it appeared that Mr. Obuchi no longer could handle his demanding prime ministerial responsibilities.

A second medical test at 2 p.m. April 2 confirmed that Mr. Obuchi had suffered a stroke. But, again, Mr. Aoki was not informed of that fact until almost five hours later, when he visited the ailing premier. At about 9:50 p.m., Mr. Obuchi fell into a coma. By then, some Japanese journalists who had caught wind of the truth were at the hospital. At 11:30 p.m., Mr. Aoki finally held a press conference to brief the media on the tragic turn of events and to announce his temporary takeover of the prime minister's duties effective 9 a.m. April 3. In the words of one of the major Japanese dailies, "[f]inally, someone was in charge." But only after a lapse of more than 22 hours had the nation been informed that Mr. Obuchi, in reality, no longer led the country.

Certain logistical and ceremonial factors also will determine when Mr. Mori dissolves the Diet for elections. Apparently anxious to prove his diplomatic mettle despite a lack of experience with this complicated and demanding policy portfolio, the prime minister is planning a busy schedule of overseas visits in the coming weeks. Mr. Mori will meet Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg, Russia April 28 to April 30. Afterward, during Japan's so-called Golden Week holidays the first week in May, Mr. Mori may visit some or all of the European G-8 nations as well as the United States. In fact, immediately following his election as prime minister, Mr. Mori received a congratulatory telephone call from President Clinton, who proposed a get-acquainted meeting in Washington as soon as possible.

In addition, Emperor Akihito is expected to visit Europe from May 20 to June 1. Unnamed Tokyo sources said that the lower house elections certainly would not be held while the emperor was out of the country. All of these factors point toward June 18 as election day, insiders said April 8, mentioning June 11 and June 25 also as possibilities. Given the customary three-week campaign period, Mr. Mori could dissolve the Diet as early as May 21 or as late as June 4.

In the meantime, the opposition parties, also eyeing the prospect of lower house polls in the near term, are trying to use recent events to score political points. They not only have criticized the closed-door selection of Mr. Mori as ignoring the voice of the people but also have argued that following his stay-the-course policy prescriptions would be disastrous for the nation. "The Obuchi cabinet didn't have the answers to fiscal and unemployment problems. If the policy doesn't change, that's unfortunate for the people," said Tetsuzo Fuwa, president of the Japan Communist Party, when asked to comment on Mr. Mori's Diet speech. Democratic Party of Japan President Yukio Hatoyama hammered on the political expediency of the governing union, arguing that the Mori administration is preoccupied with power politics and ruling by numerical superiority rather than with developing and implementing policies to restructure the economy.

Until the evening of April 1, the Liberal Party was part of the coalition that governed Japan along with the LDP and the New Komeito. Shortly after Liberal Party chief Ichiro Ozawa's bolt from the fold due to irreconcilable political and policy differences, 26 members of the small, right-wing party parted ways with their brash, controversial leader to form a splinter group, which they named the New Conservative Party (see Table 2). It is no secret that party members, who elected upper house member Chikage Ogi to be their leader April 3, wanted to retain their seats at the governing table, apparently hoping that their electoral prospects would be improved by such an alliance.

Party Membership in the Diet, April 5, 2000

Lower
House

Upper
House

Ruling Parties

Liberal Democratic Party

267

107

New Komeito

48

24

New Conservative Party

20

6

Opposition Parties

Democratic Party of Japan

96

57

Japan Communist Party

26

23

Social Democratic Party of Japan

13

14

Liberal Party

9

5

Independents/Minor Parties

20

15

Vacancies

1

1

Total

500

252

Source: Kyodo News Wire Service, April 5, 2000.

 

They may or may not be right. The same goes for the electoral futures of the New Komeito and, even, the LDP. The political situation in Japan is so fluid that any number of different outcomes is possible. However, the extent to which voters are fed up with the endless maneuvering between and among the ruling and the opposition parties may be known sooner rather than later. This suggests, in turn, that the person who presides over the G-8 gathering in July may not be the same individual that Messrs. Putin and Clinton as well as European leaders meet in the weeks ahead. But, then again, given the highly unpredictable political backdrop, Mr. Mori could fool everyone and hang on to the premiership longer than perhaps even he imagines.

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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