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Saturday, April 1, 2000

LIBERALS BEGIN TO IMPLODE

Ozawa's brinkmanship backfires


By TOSHI MAEDA and YOKO HANI
Staff writers

While the eruption of a volcano in Hokkaido forces thousands of people to evacuate their homes, the eruption of Ichiro Ozawa in Tokyo is encouraging some of his fellow lawmakers to evacuate the Liberal Party.

Ozawa, the maverick leader of the 50-strong Liberal Party, is expected to formally announce today the party's defection from the ruling triumvirate, putting an end to its 15-month alliance with the Liberal Democratic Party.

Ozawa's trademark brinkmanship of bulldozing through his policy demands by threatening to leave the coalition have finally met an immovable object -- at least until after the next general election.

More than 10 Liberal Party members plan to defect from Ozawa's party and form a new one to maintain the alliance with the LDP and New Komeito.

The splinter party will be headed by former Home Affairs Minister Takeshi Noda, who will be joined primarily by lawmakers whose survival in the next general election seems to hinge on support from New Komeito, or, more specifically, the lay-Buddhist group Soka Gakkai that is behind the party. The group has an estimated 7 million solid votes nationwide.

Speculation has focused on the faction that Transport Minister Toshihiro Nikai, the only Liberal Party member holding a Cabinet post, will pin his colors to, but he has yet to reveal his intentions.

"(The defectors) are spoiled, easygoing fellows counting too much on illusory cooperation (with the LDP and New Komeito in the election)," said a senior Liberal Party official who is close to Ozawa.

The coming election -- and the inter-party vying of candidates for Diet seats -- is the primary reason the Liberal Party has chosen to break away from the coalition.

At the last general election in 1996, the Liberal Party was part of the now-defunct Shinshinto party, which included some members of the current New Komeito and the Democratic Party of Japan.

With labor unions -- another powerful vote-collecting machine -- effectively backing the DPJ, observers say, it will be next to impossible for the Liberal Party to maintain its present strength in the next election unless it manages to gain support from Soka Gakkai.

In an attempt to impress voters as a "fighting policy group" that always follows through on its pledges, the Liberal Party joined the ruling camp, forming a two-way coalition with the LDP in January last year.

The sweet and relatively successful partnership with the LDP ended, in Ozawa's view, last October when New Komeito joined the ruling camp to launch the tripartite coalition.

The Liberal Party's major policy demands, especially those regarding national security and social welfare, have made no visible headway, with the LDP gradually shifting its emphasis to deals with New Komeito, which has a total of 72 lawmakers in the Diet.

Recent polls point to the declining popularity of the ruling triumvirate. A series of scandals involving lawmakers and bureaucrats has also set the coalition back, while the nation's economy has yet to show definite signs of recovery, despite the government's massive fiscal expenditures, financed by heavy issuances of debt bonds. It was a day after Obuchi rejected the notion of a LDP-Liberal Party merger prior to the election that Ozawa suggested to Liberal Party executives that they leave the coalition.

"Actually, there was a good opportunity (to carry out the merger) late last year, but it failed to materialize. Now, all LDP executives are saying that the opportunities are gone," Obuchi said in a nationally televised program aired last Sunday. (March 26). The possibility of a merger was badly damaged in December, the last time Ozawa used his threatening tactics.

The LDP also notified the Liberal Party on Thursday that it cannot accept the Liberal Party's demand that the two parties coordinate their candidates in 26 constituencies so their candidates will not have to compete against each other in those constituencies.

One expert believes the Liberals' defection will have serious ramifications for the current power holders. "The breakaway of the Liberals will be a serious blow to the Obuchi administration," said Takayoshi Miyagawa, president of the Center for Political Public Relations Inc, a private election research group.

"The LDP will have to depend more on New Komeito, which would not necessarily bring the LDP (good election results).

"(Ozawa's defection) might lead to the end of the Obuchi administration," he said, adding that his analyses suggest a majority of Ozawa's remaining followers would survive the election through the proportional representation voting system, thanks to his charisma and never-say-die persistence.

But the Liberals' defection by no means spells certain demise for the ruling camp: the LDP and New Komeito alone still occupy a majority of the seats in both Diet chambers.



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