No. 22 — June 9, 2000


Weekly Review

--- by Barbara Wanner

With his approval ratings in a free-fall, Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori dissolved the House of Representatives June 2 and formally called for elections June 25. Although the official 12-day campaign does not kick off until June 13, members of the three ruling parties — the Liberal Democratic Party, the New Komeito and the New Conservative Party — and opposition party lawmakers wasted no time in taking jabs at each other in their efforts to galvanize Japan's notoriously ambivalent electorate. Election analysts contend that the prospects for continuity — or change — in government leadership hinge on the extent to which the massive bloc of unaffiliated voters exercises its constitutional right.

A low voter turnout usually benefits the LDP, which relies on a well-developed network of grass-roots groups to mobilize longtime supporters. Secretary General Hiromu Nonaka said June 1 that the LDP aims to win 229 of the 254 seats that the triparty coalition has targeted in the 480-member lower house. When the House of Representatives was dissolved, the three governing parties controlled 336 seats in that 500-member chamber, including 267 held by Liberal Democrats (see Table). This past February, however, the Diet enacted legislation that reduces the number of proportional representa-tion seats by 20 to 180 (see JEI Report No. 5B, February 4, 2000).
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Party Membership in the Diet, June 2, 2000



Ruling Parties

aa Liberal Democratic Party



aa New Komeito



aa New Conservative Party



Opposition Parties

aa Democratic Party of Japan



aa Japan Communist Party



aa Social Democratic Party of Japan



aa Liberal Party



aa Independents/Minor Parties









Source: Kyodo News Wire Service, June 2, 2000.

The significance of the upcoming contests goes beyond the fact that they represent the first polls under the new lower house electoral plan. More importantly, the June 25 elections are the first ones for this chamber in nearly four years. Much has happened during that time. Voters presumably will pass judgment on the effectiveness of the LDP-led government's reliance on fiscal stimulus to get the long-stumbling economy back on its feet as well as on the wisdom of the LDP's October 1999 decision to bring the centrist, Buddhist-backed New Komeito into the coalition. The latter move, in particular, has been widely criticized as nothing more than a ploy on the part of then-Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi to create a governing union that dominated both houses of the Diet (see JEI Report No. 39A, October 15, 1999).

At this stage, few pundits are willing to speculate about the results of the elections. A May 31 survey by Sankei Shimbun, one of the major dailies, indicated that support for the Mori government had plummeted to 12.5 percent from the 38 percent or so rating recorded immediately after the former LDP secretary general was elected in early April to succeed the incapacitated Mr. Obuchi (see JEI Report No. 15B, April 14, 2000). Sankei attributed this dismal showing to the public's negative reaction to Mr. Mori's recent controversial remark that Japan is a "divine nation with the emperor at its center" as well as to his refusal to retract the statement — and what this suggests about his suitability to continue as the nation's leader (see JEI Report No. 21B, May 26, 2000).

The LDP has scrambled to contain the damage caused by Mr. Mori's gaffe, which not only was disturbingly reminiscent of the ideology that drove Japan's wartime militarism but also seemed to fly in the face of the constitution's separation of church and state. In its platform, issued right after the Diet was dissolved, the ruling party included some highly unusual language emphasizing Japan's syncretic religious tradition (see JEI Report No. 10A, March 10, 2000) and lamenting the decline of patriotism. "Our country is one in which many religions have flourished, including the belief that the gods reside in the mountains, rivers, grass and trees, and that there is something that supersedes human recognition," says the preface to the LDP policy statement. "But now the hearts of the Japanese people are weary and the patriotism that respects the ancient and good Japanese tradition and culture has weakened."

Mr. Mori — who, during his brief time in office, has proved to be his own worst enemy — further exacerbated his public relations problems when he employed a politically incorrect term, kokutai (national polity), in remarks to a June 4 LDP gathering in Nara, the ancient capital. Before 1945, kokutai was used to refer to Japan's emperor-centered political system. Mr. Mori was trying to portray the Japan Communist Party as incapable of providing an effective national defense and, therefore, unfit to be part of a governing coalition. "The Japan Communist Party says it will not change its principles. The party calls for dissolving the Self-Defense Forces and does not approve of the U.S.-Japan security arrangement. How could we possibly secure Japan's kokutai and ensure public safety with such a party."

Apparently having failed to learn an important lesson, Mr. Mori tried to defend his choice of words, telling a June 5 press briefing that he "was not connecting the nation's current system with the old [meaning of] kokutai." In the meantime, according to The Economist, senior LDP officials are scratching their heads, removing Mr. Mori's picture from local party headquarters and generally trying to distance LDP candidates from their leader. "I cannot say that [kokutai] was appropriate," Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki later told reporters. "[It] is a phrase that invites misunderstanding, and it would [have been] better for him" to have used a different term. Mr. Nonaka has suggested that Mr. Mori, indeed, will be out of a job if the governing parties do not meet their 254-seat election target.

The political opposition is milking Mr. Mori's two misstatements for all their political worth. The four major nonruling parties — the Democratic Party of Japan, the JCP, the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party of Japan — introduced a no-confidence resolution May 31, charging that Mr. Mori's "divine nation" remark made him unfit to be prime minister. However, the measure was not put to a vote during the June 2 lower house plenary session because Mr. Mori's decision to dissolve the chamber superseded other items on the agenda. DPJ chief Yukio Hatoyama seized on the coalition's use of that parliamentary tactic to launch a preemptive strike at the LDP, the New Komeito and the New Conservative Party before the official campaign period began. He took to the streets June 3, railing that "an outrageous government has been born" — a reference to Mr. Mori's recent elevation to the pinnacle of political power.

But even in the wake of Mr. Mori's kokutai gaffe, political experts warn that the opposition should not become overconfident and assume that it can upset the powers-that-be in the upcoming lower house elections. More than one commentator has remarked that simply beating up on Mr. Mori for his unabashedly nationalistic views is not enough to convince voters that the DPJ and its allies can lead the country any better. The nonruling parties must present a well-conceived, full-scale policy outline — something they have yet to do — or voters are likely to write them off as an unreliable, risky alternative.

All this suggests that the LDP probably will remain in the driver's seat in an alliance with the New Komeito and the New Conservative Party. The jury is out, though, on whether the trio can secure the 254 seats it needs to maintain control of lower house committees. The new government in all likelihood will be weaker than the current one. About the only point on which almost everyone concurs is that Mr. Mori should not get too comfortable in the prime minister's residence.

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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