Tuesday, Dec. 14, 1999
Staff writer The 48-day extraordinary Diet session, scheduled to end today, appears to have exposed the weaknesses rather than strengths of Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi's new tripartite coalition, which controls 70 percent of the seats in the Lower House. Obuchi had hoped the combined majority of 356 seats in the 500-seat Lower House and 141 in the 252-seat Upper House would ensure his coalition, formed in October by his Liberal Democratic Party, the Liberal Party and New Komeito, smooth and easy proceedings on key bills. However, the sheer size of the coalition proved vulnerable to full-scale attacks from the opposition camp, which accused the ruling alliance of trying to bulldoze things with its overwhelming power. The coalition government did pass -- with opposition support -- some key bills, including legislation to crack down on Aum Shinrikyo and to improve nuclear safety in the wake of the nation's worst atomic accident, which occurred in September in Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture. The bloc also won quick Diet approval of a 6.8 trillion yen extra budget to finance its latest stimulus package. But with more sensitive issues on which the opposition took a confrontational stance, such as the pension reform bills, the ruling alliance was cautious of trying not to look too forceful and accepted opposition demands for negotiations. In a rare move, after coalition lawmakers forced a vote on the pension bills at the Lower House Health and Welfare Committee amid fierce opposition resistance, the ruling bloc eventually agreed to reopen committee debate and hold another vote. The bills later cleared the full Lower House, but time ran out in the Upper House and the bills will probably be carried over to the next regular Diet session, which opens in January. "Prime Minister Obuchi formed the coalition saying he was seeking a stable government to realize his policy goals, but over the past two months, Japanese politics has stagnated (under the new coalition)," said Tsutomu Hata, former prime minister and now secretary general of the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition force. "In reality, Obuchi's administration seems to have become more unstable because of its huge size," he added. The coalition's Diet management appeared weak-kneed compared with the last ordinary session, when the government successfully got a series of controversial bills passed thanks to New Komeito's support, including wiretapping legislation, despite fierce protests from the opposition camp. During the last regular session, New Komeito, although still outside the ruling alliance, mostly cooperated with the LDP-Liberal Party coalition to make up for the bloc's lack of a majority in the Upper House. New Komeito's cooperation also eased the impression that the LDP-led alliance was forcing its way in Diet management. A senior LDP member said it may have been easier for the LDP to handle the Diet when New Komeito belonged to the opposition as a "buffer" between the ruling and opposition camp. Also amid opposition objections concerning the deliberation schedule, passage of a bill to cut 20 proportional representation seats from the Lower House -- one of the policy accords by the ruling parties -- remained uncertain even on the eve of the closing day of the extraordinary Diet session. Coalition leaders started discussing a possible extension of the Diet term to secure more time for debate. The fate of the bill may affect the coalition's unity because Liberal Party leader Ichiro Ozawa has again hinted his party may quit the alliance if the bill, which the party has been strongly calling for, is not approved during the current session. Indeed, the extra Diet session was the first test of Obuchi's ability to control the ruling parties amid their broad differences on some key issues. The sign of instability in the coalition surfaced over the public-care insurance system for the elderly that will be introduced in April. Because of discord over how the elderly-care system should be financed, Ozawa at one time threatened that the Liberals would not support the 6.8 trillion yen extra budget. The coalition also had to postpone some policy plans amid lingering internal differences. These included a proposal to lift Japan's self-imposed limits on participating in the main areas of United Nations peacekeeping missions."Policy differences (among the three parties) were not serious enough to break up the coalition," a senior New Komeito member said. New Komeito leader Takenori Kanzaki also said his party will patiently work toward strengthening the coalition while trying to have his party's ideas reflected in government policy. But recent media opinion polls show Obuchi's Cabinet is steadily losing support. A Kyodo News survey last week said the support rate for Obuchi dropped 6.2 percentage points from October to 45.6 percent. According to the survey, 25 percent of pollees who said they disapproved of the Cabinet said they did not support it "because it is a coalition of the LDP, the Liberals and New Komeito," while another 16 percent cited "Obuchi's lack of leadership." Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki defends the coalition, saying more time is needed for the alliance to win public support. But the declining support rate is apparently a cause of headache for Obuchi as he searches for the best timing to dissolve the Lower House and call a general election.It is believed he has given up seeking a snap election before the end of the year -- as was earlier speculated. A general election must be held before next October, when the four-year terms of the incumbent Lower House members expire.The extraordinary Diet session introduced a new system of one-on-one debate between the prime minister and opposition leaders, modeled after the "Question Time" session in Britain's House of Commons. Hidekazu Kawai, professor of comparative politics at Gakushuin University, said such debate -- unlike the traditional Diet deliberations where bureaucrats played a major role in representing the government side -- may enable the public to better judge who is suitable to serve as prime minister. Obuchi twice experienced the full 40-minute faceoff. During the first session, Obuchi had to publicly declare the LDP's about-face on the issue of banning corporate donations to lawmakers, while DPJ leader Hatoyama criticized the prime minister and suggested the LDP may be mulling loopholes in the ban. "The debate before the public was quite effective in that it showed that prime ministership indeed bears a great responsibility," Kawai said.