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November 30, 2000

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AsiaweekTimeAsia NowAsiaweek

MARCH 3, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 8

Electoral winds hit Japan
Prime Minister Obuchi hints at an early poll

Poor Obuchi Keizo. Japan's prime minister pulled his nation back from the brink of economic disaster, put together a ruling coalition that dominates parliament, and sent resurgent opposition parties into humiliating retreat. And he still gets no respect - oppositionists are smearing him becaue of an aide's alleged scandal, potential rivals in his Lib-eral Democratic Party (LDP) are sniping at his policies, and his public opinion numbers are sinking ever lower. Now it appears he is being pushed toward early elections. Or is he? As usual with the self-effacing and clarity-challenged premier, it is hard to tell if Obuchi is weak - or wily.

In a speech to LDP faithful in his home prefecture of Gunma, Obuchi last week said opposition pressure was making him seriously consider an early poll. "Once the fiscal 2000 budget and relevant laws clear the Diet, I will fully consider and decide when [to dissolve the lower house]," he said. "We cannot remain re-laxed. We must face the challenge bravely when the time comes." Later, he told report-ers: "We will canvass in [all] 47 prefectures. It is starting today. Everybody will be busy." The new fiscal year starts April 1, and the budget is expected to be approved by mid-March. The election has to be held by Oct. 19, and the assumption had been that Obuchi would not want to hold it until after the summit of the G8 industrialized nations in July, which he is due to host in Okinawa. Now - with Asia's biggest economy still in limbo between recession and recovery - the odds are growing for a mid-April poll.

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What is pushing Obuchi? The opposition is promising to give him a hard time in the Diet over allegations that one of the prime minister's top aides misappropriated shares in a paging company later acquired by mobile phone giant NTT DoCoMo. The value of the shares skyrocketed when NTT DoCoMo was listed in 1998. Obuchi and the aide have denied any wrongdoing. A major parliamentary battle could delay passage of the $770 billion budget on which the fate of the cabinet - and the economy - is riding. But oppositionists are working from a weak position. Earlier this month, they walked out of the Diet after the ruling coalition rammed through a bill reducing the number of seats in parliament. They vowed to boycott proceedings until Obuchi apologized for his "anti-democratic" behavior, hoping to trigger a dissolution. Obuchi ignored them. After 11 days, as popular opinion shifted from chastising LDP arrogance to lamenting opposition irresponsibility, the boycotters caved in.

Not that the public is happy with Obuchi. The prime minister was flying high in the middle of last year. His ap-proval rating neared 60% after his bank rescue plan and fiscal stimulus packages pulled Japan out of its worst post-war economic crisis, and a coalition with the small Liberal Party promised political stability. His fortunes began waning in September when he drew a third party, New Komeito, into government. It is backed by the controversial Buddhist sect Soka Gakkai, and the move alienated many Japanese, including members of the LDP. Moreover, with the economy refusing to pick up steam and the public debt nearing 130% of gross domestic product, criticism of Obuchi's economic stewardship is growing. A February survey by the influential daily Yomiuri Shimbun shows public approval of the cabinet fell to 41% while disapproval hit 43%, the first time the latter overtook the former in 11 months. Senior LDP members like Kato Koichi, who ran against Obuchi for the party presidency last year, have also started to criticize his debt-dependent stimulus policies.

So the conventional wisdom has been that Obuchi will wait until after the G8, allowing him to bask in diplomatic glory (and ensuring that he will be playing host) and giving the economy more time to get going before he faces the voters. But there are merits to an early poll for Obuchi. While the opposition is clamoring for dissolution, it is actually in some disarray following its boycott defeat. The sooner the vote, the less likely the LDP's opponents will have their candidates in position. And a good performance could strengthen Obuchi's hand against rivals, especially since he has never led the LDP into elections. (He inherited the premiership in July 1998 after Hashimoto Ryutaro resigned following a disastrous upper house poll.)

Early elections could also help Japan's recovery. Conser-vative LDP members are banding together to oppose deregulation, which the economy needs but their constituents hate. After the polls their in-centive to block reforms fades. And if Japan needs more economic stimulus later this year, Obuchi will be better able to keep fiscal hawks at bay and the money spigots open without a looming vote. But will Obuchi jump? After talks with coalition partners, the prime minister displayed his "sense of balance" by repeating that he will "consider" the timing for dissolution after the budget, but refusing to say that he will "decide" on a date. Still, he has now primed the LDP's electoral machine, just in case. "The wind toward elections has begun blowing and there is no stopping it," says Hata Tsutomu of the opposition Democratic Party. True, and Hata wants that wind to blow Obuchi out of office. But the prime minister may be just fanning the breeze for his own purposes.

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