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Tuesday, Feb. 29, 2000

With budget set, elections may be next

Staff writer

Lower House approval of the fiscal 2000 budget, a major hurdle in the ongoing 150-day regular Diet session, is expected to give Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi a freer hand in dissolving the chamber for a general election.

But the state of the nation's economy -- believed to be a key factor in Obuchi's decision over election timing -- still appears mixed at best. While the Nikkei average on the Tokyo Stock Exchange continues to hover just below the 20,000 level, the jobless rate remains pegged near its postwar high, and October-December gross domestic product -- to be released soon -- is forecast to mark the second quarterly fall in a row.

The recent scandal over former Financial Reconstruction Minister Michio Ochi -- who was effectively sacked for appearing to suggest to bankers he could relieve pressure from another governmental body's inspections -- may also affect the prime minister's decision as he searches for the best timing for an election, which must be held no later than in October.

Obuchi has repeatedly suggested that he will not dissolve the Lower House until the 85 trillion yen budget, aimed at financing heavy public spending to give an additional push to the economy, clears the Diet. Once the budget passes the Lower House, it will clear the legislature within 30 days -- with or without Upper House approval.

In a speech during his trip to his native Gunma Prefecture last month, Obuchi said he will decide on the election timing once the budget clears the Diet. It was widely taken as indicating that Obuchi plans to hold an election as early as April.

But the scandal surrounding Ochi apparently tarnished the public image of Obuchi's Cabinet, which may discourage the prime minister from calling an election anytime soon.

Last Friday, Ochi, a Cabinet member and Lower House member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, stepped down as he came under fire for telling a gathering of bankers in Tochigi Prefecture that they should consult him if they have complaints about inspections by financial regulators.

The Obuchi Cabinet acted quickly to contain the potential damage. He was effectively sacked one day after the remarks in question were exposed by the opposition camp and replaced by Sadakazu Tanigaki.

"The public image of the Obuchi Cabinet was obviously damaged," lamented Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki. "What the government has to do right now is to make efforts to regain public trust under the prime minister's leadership."

The opposition camp is poised to use the Ochi scandal as ammunition against Obuchi.

Tatsuo Kawabata, a senior member of the Democratic Party of Japan in charge of Diet affairs, says the largest opposition force will also try to corner Obuchi by highlighting his Cabinet's inability to properly deal with a recent series of scandals involving the Niigata Prefectural Police.

The National Public Safety Commission, headed by Home Affairs Minister Kosuke Hori, is being criticized for failing to take stricter penalties against the police officials involved.

At the outset of this Diet session, the opposition camp staged an all-out resistance toward the powerful ruling bloc, boycotting Diet proceedings -- including the prime minister's policy speech -- for 11 days.

But after that, the opposition parties were effectively powerless as the ruling bloc enjoyed smooth sailing in the Lower House.

They hope to turn around the tide as they prepare for the election.

By holding the election early, Obuchi may be able to boast of what he has done to boost the economy before economic data proves him right or wrong. On the other hand, he wants to ensure that he remains in power in July, when Group of Eight leaders gather in Okinawa, a major diplomatic event he would like to be seen chairing.

Obuchi also cannot ignore his coalition partners' opinions, since his LDP lacks a majority in the Upper House and is expected to remain so for years to come.

Liberal Party leader Ichiro Ozawa is leaving the timing of the Lower House election to Obuchi, while New Komeito head Takenori Kanzaki says he hopes the election will be held after the G8 summit.

New Komeito, which joined the bloc in October, wants to demonstrate before the election that the coalition has achieved something positive, particularly in social welfare fields. The gigantic tripartite coalition, which controls about 70 percent of Lower House seats, remains widely unpopular in newspapers' public opinion polls.

Recent comments by top LDP executives appear to suggest that there will be no election anytime soon.

Makoto Koga, the party's Diet affairs chief, predicts that the election will be held after the summit.

"I hope the prime minister can fulfill his duty by hosting the G8 meeting."

LDP Secretary General Yoshiro Mori has also mentioned the possibility of an election after the summit, while Hiromu Nonaka, deputy secretary general of the party, indicated that Obuchi should wait until incumbent Lower House members complete their four-year term.

It was not clear, however, if they mean what they say or are just trying to prevent speculation over the election from heating up too much.

It is quite unusual for Lower House members to complete their four-year terms, since the prime minister often dissolves the chamber once they have finished their third year.

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The Japan Times

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