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Monday, July 24, 2000

Summit Mori's career high?

Leader jumps first hurdle; still many more ahead


By YOKO HANI and KANAKO TAKAHARA
Staff writers

NAGO, Okinawa Pref. — Concluding the Group of Eight summit with a smile under the scorching sun, Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori may boast he has cleared a key hurdle for his administration — but it is just one hurdle of many.

Indeed, a successful G8 summit was crucial both for the prime minister, who chaired a full-fledged international conference for the first time, and his fledgling administration, which was formed after last month's Lower House elections.

Mori's predecessor, the late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, who suffered a stroke in early April and died in mid-May, made the decision for Japan to host the G8 summit outside Tokyo for the first time. He had hoped the conference would be successful and would turn the world's attention to Okinawa, an area with a unique history and economy.

Mori played a rather successful role as host of the summit. But the gaffe-prone leader must still complete a mountain of daunting tasks if he is to reverse the continued slide in his administration's public approval rating.

The disapproval rating for Mori's Cabinet was 62 percent, a record high for a new administration, with support at 27 percent, according to a Kyodo News poll conducted the day after the Cabinet was launched on July 4.

"The support rate for the Mori Cabinet may rise a bit," after hosting such an international conference and being seen with the most powerful leaders, said Hidekazu Kawai, professor of political science at Gakushuin University.

After the G8 summit, Mori's credibility as the nation's leader will be tested even more in an extraordinary Diet session that starts Friday.

On the first day of the 13-day session, Mori will deliver his first policy speech since forming his new Cabinet.

But it is likely the prime minister will simply reiterate that his government will keep focusing on economic recovery while setting aside the problems of the nation's ballooning debt.

The public will closely watch if Mori can actually put the economy on a solid path to growth, as he pledged at the Okinawa summit. And whether he can do that will be crucial to his own political fortunes.

In trying to impress the public with his seriousness about economic issues, Mori has already declared that it will take his strong leadership to create "a reborn Japan," by taking such steps as setting up a special task force aimed at turning Japan into a more technologically advanced society.

But these steps alone do not seem to be enough to raise his popularity, because all that he has done so far is set up panels — just before the G8 summit — focusing on such issues as information technology and fiscal policymaking. It remains unclear how much these panels will develop their discussions and actually achieve something.

The challenges for Mori will not end with the 13-day Diet session.

Political observers say his administration may face its most critical period in another extraordinary Diet session in autumn, when many controversial bills that did not clear the last ordinary session will be deliberated.

One of those bills is to revise the Juvenile Law, including lowering the minimum punishable age from 16 to 14, in the wake of a series of vicious crimes committed by teenagers. The Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition force, is strongly opposed to such a revision.

Amid public furor over recent police misconduct scandals across the country, the Mori government also faces the task of revising the Police Law to promote information disclosure at the National Public Safety Commission, Japan's most powerful internal security body, and create a system to make sure that complaints are taken care of.

Another problem the Mori government will face at the extraordinary session in autumn is a continued push by New Komeito and the New Conservative Party, coalition partners of Mori's Liberal Democratic Party, for legislation to ban politicians from receiving goods and money in exchange for political favors.

With strong backing from the two parties, the ruling coalition has agreed to draw up a joint bill on the matter by the end of the year. But it is uncertain if Mori can exercise the leadership to actually draw up the bill.

The opposition camp meanwhile has already submitted a joint bill of its own in the wake of the bribery scandal involving former Construction Minister Eiichi Nakao.

If Mori fails to successfully steer the Diet session in favor of the ruling coalition, it is uncertain whether he will be able to stay on as prime minister even until next summer's Upper House election.

On the diplomatic front, Mori will be tested in his ability to make a breakthrough in stalled negotiations with Russia over a long-standing territorial row between the two countries and concluding a peace treaty by the end of the year, as targeted by the two nations three years ago.

Although Russian President Vladimir Putin will visit Japan in early September for talks over the issue, Putin recently indicated in an interview that the two nations are unlikely to be able to sign the peace treaty anytime soon.

Mori will also have to exhibit strong leadership — if he can — in achieving progress in normalization talks with North Korea, which are expected to be resumed as early as late August.

"The summit may have ended in success, with world leaders vowing to cooperate with each other to promote such issues as IT," Kawai of Gakushuin said. "But it may turn out to be an event that crowns the last days of Mori's career (as prime minister)."



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