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Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2000

Analysis: Obstinacy may backfire on both sides


Staff writer

The ruling coalition on Wednesday dug its heels in even deeper as a political battle for public sentiment with the opposition camp took another turn.

With opposition lawmakers standing firm in their boycott, those from the Liberal Democratic Party, Liberal Party and New Komeito passed into law a bill eliminating 20 proportional-representation seats from the Lower House. The Upper House vote, 134-1, was an exercise in solidarity among the three coalition parties, and a move that further divides them from the opposition.

Now attention focuses on how that divide will be bridged -- via snap elections or compromise.

Some political pundits are speculating that Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi will call a snap election in April after the fiscal 2000 budget is passed.

But others point out that public criticism could in the meantime become a key factor.

The boycott began last week after the ruling coalition rammed the bill through a Lower House committee.

The bill is seen as a setback to small opposition parties who rely on proportional representation but, as Liberal Party Chief Ichiro Ozawa points out, could help lead to a stronger two-party democracy.

At any rate, the bickering has left a black-eye on the current Diet session. Earlier this week, the question-and-answer sessions that followed Obuchi's policy speech went ahead without opposition participation for the first time in modern Diet history.

It's a black-eye the opposition is hoping to use to gain some public sympathy.

"If the ruling coalition senses that the public is against them and foresees an unfavorable situation in the general elections (to be held by October), it will propose a compromise with the opposition," said Minoru Morita, a political commentator.

So far, senior members of the Liberal Democratic Party claim they do not intend to approach the opposition to restore normalcy in the Diet.

But some observers predict the ruling coalition may move toward a compromise if the Obuchi administration's popularity rating declines sharply or if the bloc suffers big losses in Kyoto mayoral and Osaka gubernatorial elections on Sunday.

In both elections, the ruling bloc and the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition force, are backing the same candidates. Still, coalition lawmakers say if their candidates suffer humiliating defeats against candidates backed by the Japanese Communist Party, it would represent a public rejection of the ruling bloc.

Signs of the coalition's declining popularity are already emerging.

According to an opinion poll conducted over the weekend by the Asahi Shimbun, 39 percent of those polled supported Obuchi's Cabinet. That figure is 4 points down from a similar survey it conducted in December, and marks the worst approval rating for Obuchi's administration since the coalition was formed in October.

As for the opposition, DPJ head Yukio Hatoyama said recently that the camp has to remain patient -- even if it draws criticism -- during this battle of wills.

But some LDP lawmakers sense that their opponents are growing nervous about the boycott and how it will be perceived by the public. These Diet members are optimistic that sentiment will turn in favor of the ruling bloc once deliberations on the 2000 budget begin.

Obuchi's government has been touting its budget proposal as indispensable for Japan's fledgling economic recovery.

Another question is whether opposition leaders will call off the boycott, at least partially, and show up for a one-on-one Diet debate with Obuchi. The debate, recently enacted in hopes of making elected politicians more accountable, is scheduled for Wednesday.

It is considered the best opportunity for opposition leaders to challenge the ruling camp.

Boycotting the debate would not only show disregard for the democratic process but could also diminish any popularity the opposition may have, according to political analysts.

Although Obuchi did not directly state when he might dissolve the Lower House during a session in the chamber earlier in the week, he indicated it would not happen before late March, when the budget is expected to pass.

"When I feel we need to ask the public to judge (our political performance), I won't hesitate to carry out (a general election)," he said.

Fueling speculation over the election's timing, Foreign Minister Yohei Kono said recently that it could be held before Japan hosts the Group of Eight summit in Okinawa in July.

A change in government through elections before the summit could add a sense of commotion to the summit's preparations.

But Kono downplayed those fears.

If the government calls for an election before the summit, "that would not mean we are abandoning our responsibility as (G8) host nation," Kono told a news conference Tuesday. "It is up to Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi to decide the timing ... but we can sufficiently fulfill our responsibility as host nation even after we further consolidate our political foundation through an election."

Whatever the outcome of the Diet stalemate, the unprecedented situation seems to have exposed the changing character of politics.

Observers say the coalition is overly bent on achieving its internal policy agreements and shunning the voice of the opposition.

For the triumvirate, enactment of the seat-cut bill at the beginning of the Diet session appears to have been crucial because the Liberal Party had threatened to leave the coalition if the bloc failed to fulfill that internal promise.

"In the past, the government often struck deals with opposition parties in last-minute efforts to prevent the opposition from boycotting sessions," Morita said. "But this time it is different.

"What is going on in the Diet hints at the possibility that the Diet may be reduced to a body in name only."



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