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Monday, June 26, 2000

Voters sided with unpopular status quo


By TOSHI MAEDA and YOKO HANI
Staff writers

Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori's nonstop gaffes and his administration's staggering unpopularity were ultimately tolerated by the voters who preferred the status quo to gambling on the opposition.

The ruling coalition led by Mori's Liberal Democratic Party gained more than their targeted 254 seats in the 480-seat Lower House in Sunday's election, securing Mori's leadership for the moment.

A low voter turnout, estimated at 63.16 percent — apparently a result of voter apathy combined with inclement weather throughout the archipelago — was largely responsible for the victory of the tripartite coalition, which is solidly backed by the conservative strata as well as the construction industry, agricultural associations and religious groups.

The result shows that Japan's political power balance will likely remain unchanged at least for a while, with Mori remaining prime minister beyond the Group of Eight summit in Okinawa in July.

Leading up to the election, encouraging factors were almost nil for the ruling camp — the economy is still struggling to recover, the national debt is ballooning and recent poll ratings of the Mori Cabinet hovered around a mere 20 percent.

In addition, Mori's recent dated, yet controversial, remarks gave extra ammunition to the opposition camp led by the Democratic Party of Japan.

But the estranged opposition forces failed to cash in and overturn the tripartite ruling bloc, largely due to their failure to present to the electorate a blueprint for an alternative government. In the end, voters were unable to find the strength to replace the current regime.

The DPJ, the largest opposition party, is expected to see the number of seats it holds increase by more than 40. Although a big gain, the increase was not drastic enough to initiate a change in power.

The DPJ stuck to its aim of winning a single majority on its own by fielding 262 candidates — a goal that was theoretically possible but did not seem practical. The DPJ's policy seems to have originated in the party's long-range goal of gaining power by itself at the next election, which will come by 2004.

Meanwhile, DPJ leader Yukio Hatoyama rose to the bait offered by LDP officials and repeatedly denied the possibility that the DPJ will team up with the Japanese Communist Party after the election. As part of its tactics to attack the DPJ, the LDP has persistently claimed that the largest opposition party is planning to join hands with the JCP, whose "dangerous" party platform encourages revolutionary movements.

The internal split within the opposition camp was obvious over policy proposals, too. The JCP and the Social Democratic Party staunchly opposed the DPJ campaign pledge to lower the minimum taxable annual income from the current 3.68 million yen to some 2.10 million yen. The JCP and SDP are also die-hard guardians of the postwar Constitution, which the DPJ and the Liberal Party, another opposition force, claim is not an untouchable code.

After various opinion polls suggested favorable results for the ruling camp last week, the DPJ finally announced its conception to appoint Hatoyama as the prime minister and its policy affairs chief, Naoto Kan, as the chief Cabinet secretary should it take office following this election. The announcement to the public, however, came a little too late to impact the voters' minds.

Far from that, Hatoyama came close to losing his own seat as many voters in his Hokkaido constituency supported an LDP contender to protest Hatoyama's stance against public works projects.

In sharp contrast to the opposition forces that have walked out of step throughout the campaign, the ruling parties have shown off their unity — as well as a clear and simple picture over who will form the next government.

The leaders of the ruling bloc, which include Buddhist-backed New Komeito and the newly born New Conservative Party, stumped together for three days during the campaign in a bid to parade the coalition's stability.

That stability, however, might be the next waiting problem for the ruling camp as New Komeito, whose gigantic vote-collecting machine largely contributed to LDP candidates, seems dissatisfied with the outcome of its own.

While New Komeito's 7.5 million supporters — or members of lay-Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai — seem to have faithfully supported more than 160 LDP candidates recommended by the party headquarters after its candidate-fielding adjustment with the LDP, LDP supporters were apparently not that loyal to voting for their designated New Komeito candidates. New Komeito, which held 42 seats before the election, is expected to emerge with less than 30.

Meanwhile, the NCP, which apparently has failed to secure a two-digit number of seats, might seek to merge into the LDP as it might effectively lose its identity as a party.

LDP kingmaker Hiromu Nanaka, who is in charge of the tripartite electoral arrangement, has hinted that he might resign his current post as LDP secretary general to take the blame.

Nonaka is unlikely to resign. But if he did so, the heavyweight's resignation could lead to another power struggle within the LDP, and even to the prime minister's fate after the G8 summit in July.



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