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Saturday, March 18, 2000

Embattled triumvirate seeks to rally the public before polls


By YOKO HANI and TOSHI MAEDA
Staff writers

Although Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi encountered little difficulty in securing Diet passage of the fiscal 2000 budget Friday, the likelihood of him dissolving the Lower House for general elections in the near future seems more distant than ever.

Obuchi's administration has been marred by a series of scandals that have put the heat on the nation's police system, and the economy still lacks the pep a leader hopes for in an election year.

"Come election time, the ruling parties will not be able to appeal to voters simply with past achievements; they'll need some new (goals and visions)," said Takeshi Sasaki, a political science professor and dean of the law department at the University of Tokyo.

Government sources readily acknowledge that the administration is now at a low point, and it seems only natural for Obuchi to launch a new series of reforms in an attempt to rekindle public support for his Cabinet and the ruling triumvirate before election time comes.

Senior members of Obuchi's Liberal Democratic Party are more vocal now in saying he should not call elections until a later date -- possibly after July's Group of Eight summit in Okinawa or even as late as October, when the terms of the Lower House members expire.

One of the policies Obuchi hopes to showcase is educational reform, as demonstrated by the scheduled launch later this month of a new private advisory panel to the prime minister -- the seventh under Obuchi -- to address this comprehensive issue.

An overhaul of the educational system is seen as a possible support-booster because it directly affects a large portion of the population. Public attention has turned to the educational system recently, focusing on such issues as English as a second language programs and the problem of "classroom collapse," where teachers lose control of their pupils.

Obuchi has already appointed former Education Minister Nobutaka Machimura as a special adviser to the prime minister on education policies. In addition, Nobel Prize laureate Reona Esaki has been tapped to head the 26-member national conference on educational reform.

The backgrounds of the panel members are as diverse as the issues they are to discuss. The members include Olympic judo gold medalist Yasuhiro Yamashita and other well-known names from the business and art worlds.

"Education is a matter of concern to the general public, and everyone has some opinion," noted Muneyuki Shindo, a professor of political science at Rikkyo University.

In addition, the appointment of Kohei Nakabo, the well-known former president of the government-run Resolution and Collection Corp., as his special adviser on monetary and environmental issues is also seen as part of Obuchi's strategy to polish his administration's tarnished image and focus on policy issues that appeal to the public.

"Calling on well-known people to address educational issues and appointing a person like Nakabo to the position of prime minister's aide are quite eye-catching strategies," Shindo conceded.

"But ironically, such moves have shown that the administration is in its final stage, and has little ability to formulate its own policies to present to the public," he added.

New Komeito and the Liberal Party, the LDP's coalition partners, insist that the three-way alliance must first score major points on the policy front, and then hold elections after the G8 summit.

Obuchi faces the concern, however, that even if elections are held at a later date, they still might not generate improved results for the ruling coalition.

And as the triumvirate struggles with internal policy differences over such matters as national security, it is uncertain to what extent it can achieve greater policy goals.

The lack of progress between the LDP and Liberal Party in coordinating candidates for single-seat constituencies may also prove to be the Achilles' heel of the coalition as Obuchi seeks to set an election date.

"For the Liberal Party, electoral coordination with the LDP is one of the most important reasons it is in the alliance," Sasaki said. "Thus, it would be a serious problem if this was not realized."

The opposition meanwhile boasts it is ready for elections at any time, and that it would be even better prepared to fight in a later poll, because the economy is not likely to recover anytime soon.

Sasaki said it is only natural that the coalition parties try to delay elections in fear of losing the majority of Diet seats they now occupy.

"But Obuchi has a lot of homework to do before the elections," he said.



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