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Wednesday, March 1, 2000
OBUCHI KEEPS EYE ON G8 SUMMIT
Budget's passage puts focus on polls
By YOKO HANI
The Lower House approval Tuesday 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 economy -- believed to be a key factor in Obuchi's decision over when to call the election -- still appears mixed at best. While the Nikkei average on the Tokyo Stock Exchange continues to hover just below 20,000, the jobless rate remains pegged near its postwar high, and the October-December gross domestic product -- to be released soon -- is forecast to mark the second quarterly fall in a row.
The recent scandal involving Financial Reconstruction Minister Michio Ochi -- who was effectively sacked for appearing to suggest to bankers he was willing to 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 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 clears 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 when to call the election once the budget clears the Diet. It was widely taken as indicating he Obuchi plans to call for an April election.
But the Ochi scandal 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 Cabinet acted quickly to contain the potential damage. He was effectively forced out one day after the opposition camp exposed his remarks and was replaced by Sadakazu Tanigaki.
"The public image of the Obuchi Cabinet was obviously damaged," Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki lamented. "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 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 the recent scandals involving the Niigata Prefectural Police.
The National Public Safety Commission, headed by Home Affairs Minister Kosuke Hori, is being criticized for failing to impose stricter penalties against the police officials involved.
At the outset of this Diet session, the opposition camp staged an all-out protest of the powerful ruling bloc by boycotting Diet proceedings -- including the prime minister's policy speech -- for 11 days.
But the effectiveness of the resistance effort appeared doubtful when the opposition was finally forced to return to the Diet, where the ruling bloc had pressed ahead unimpeded.
They hope to turn the tide as they prepare for the election.
By holding the election early, Obuchi may be able to boast economic improvements under his administration -- before economic data prove him right or wrong. On the other hand, he wants to ensure that he remains in power at least until July for the Group of Eight summit in Okinawa -- a major diplomatic event he would like to be seen chairing.
Obuchi also cannot ignore his coalition partners' opinions, because his LDP lacks a majority in the Upper House -- a situation that is not expected to change in the near future.
Liberal Party leader Ichiro Ozawa says he 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 the area of social welfare. The tripartite coalition, which controls about 70 percent of Lower House seats, remains widely unpopular, according to newspaper public opinion polls.
Recent comments by top LDP executives suggest there will be no election anytime soon.
Makoto Koga, the party's Diet affairs chief, predicts 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 indicated the election will come the summit, while Hiromu Nonaka, deputy secretary general of the party, suggested Obuchi should wait until Lower House members complete their four-year terms in October.
It was not clear, however, if they mean what they say or are just trying to prevent election speculation from heating up too much.
It is quite unusual for Lower House members to complete their four-year terms, because the prime minister has often dissolved the chamber once they have finished their third year.