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Saturday, June 3, 2000

ELECTION 2000

Ruling coalition awaits voters' judgment at polls


Staff writer

The coming Lower House election will give voters their first chance to express their support, or lack thereof, for the tripartite coalition led by the Liberal Democratic Party.

"We will seek the people's judgment (on the bloc) by stating that we will maintain the current coalition after the upcoming election and at least until the next one is held," said Takenori Kanzaki, head of coalition member New Komeito, stressing his party's firm links with the LDP.

After a serious setback in the last Upper House election in 1998, the LDP was forced to seek alliances with its former opposition foes to retain solid control of the Diet.

The LDP now holds 267 of the 500 seats in the Lower House and is aided by New Komeito, which holds 48, and the New Conservative Party, with another 21. This overwhelming alliance has succeeded in pushing most of its legislation through the Diet since last year.

To form an even more united front against the opposition, the three parties have coordinated the fielding of candidates in single-seat constituencies in order to avoid competition within the triumvirate.

In addition, they have prepared a joint campaign pledge that includes bringing forward public works projects and creating 500,000 jobs by promoting the information and technology industries.

The strategy indicates the LDP believes it would be close to impossible to obtain a majority on its own, said Hidekazu Kawai, a professor of political science at Gakushuin University.

"LDP leaders cannot say the party intends to capture more than 240 seats for fear of failing to achieve that goal," Kawai said. "They are trying to protect (Prime Minister Yoshiro) Mori by putting forward coalition goals instead."

Earlier this week, top officials of the three coalition parties agreed that the Mori Cabinet will have obtained a vote of confidence from the public if the alliance secures 254 seats out of the 480 seats up for grabs. The goal is far less than the 336 seats the coalition holds in the current 500-seat chamber.

The situation is much more bleak in the Upper House, where the LDP remains well below a majority and will have to depend on its coalition partners' help in the foreseeable future.

Ever since the Liberal Party, led by Ichiro Ozawa, left the coalition in April, the significance of New Komeito, backed by the lay Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai, in the bloc has been growing.

"Current LDP leaders have apparently decided to entwine their fate with that of New Komeito for years to come," said Norihiko Narita, a professor of contemporary Japanese politics at Surugadai University.

At this point, the LDP's prospects in the upcoming election appear bleak.

What was once thought to be the best time to dissolve the Lower House now appears to be fraught with danger for Mori's government.

Recent opinion polls by major newspapers reflect a drastic decline in public support for the Cabinet, due mainly to recent controversies surrounding Mori.

His contentious remark about Japan being "a divine nation centering on the Emperor" seems to have dealt his party a severe blow. He refused to retract the statement but offered an apology, which only fueled the attacks by the opposition camp.

Also, doubts linger as to whether the late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, amid a declining level of consciousness after suffering a stroke on April 2, really appointed Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki as acting prime minister. Suspicions that Aoki may have rigged the procedure, allowing a handful of party leaders to get behind Mori as Obuchi's successor as LDP president, have led people to question his administration's credibility.

Still, many political observers agree Mori will probably continue to lead the government until the Group of Eight summit in July — as long as the coalition maintains a majority in the Lower House. Their reasoning? There is simply not enough time to change the leadership between the election and the summit.

Others say that if the LDP suffers an election setback and Mori is blamed, party executives who selected him to succeed Obuchi should share that blame.

"If the coalition is victorious, Mori will be named prime minister again and chair the G8 summit," Narita of Surugadai University said. "But it is unclear how long Mori will be able to keep the post. It depends on the number of votes the parties get in the election."

The only thing going for the embattled LDP seems to be that the economy is showing early signs of recovery.

The unemployment rate in April showed its first improvement in seven months and once gross domestic product figures for the January-March quarter are released Friday, it will be known whether the government achieved its 0.6 percent real economic growth target in fiscal 1999.

While the coalition parties are expected to face an uphill battle in the election, it does not necessarily mean the opposition will enjoy a landslide victory, observers said.

Opposition parties have recently stepped up their attacks on the prime minister, riding the wave of criticism that followed Mori's "divine nation" remark.

However, Takayoshi Miyagawa, president of the Center for Political Public Relations Inc., a private election research group, pointed out that they have spent too much time focusing on Mori and neglected to present their own policy vision.

"They cannot win the election merely on the back of a negative campaign," he said.

Failing to present full-scale policy plans, the opposition camp will be viewed by voters as unreliable and they will not elect to change the government, Miyagawa said. "Voters expect a government led by the opposition parties to create turmoil, and they don't want such turmoil in this (fragile) economic situation."

It is also unclear how the opposition camp would form an alliance centering on the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition force.

Although the Japanese Communist Party, the second-largest opposition force, appears to be willing to cooperate with the DPJ, the DPJ's leader, Yukio Hatoyama, is wary of such an alliance.

"We hope to form an administration centering on the DPJ, but we don't intend to talk about the partner(s) in the alliance," he said. "We may seek cooperation from individual politicians who share the policy visions of our party."

Hatoyama said he does not believe his party shares policy visions with the JCP, adding that it would be difficult to join hands with the Communists as long as they maintain their basic policy platform.

Judging from the current situation, a power shift is unlikely to take place as a result of the upcoming election, Miyagawa said.

"The focus of this election will be on how many seats the LDP will lose of its current 267, which will greatly impact the political fate of the prime minister," he added.



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The Japan Times

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