The End of the Obuchi Administration
Kenzo UCHIDA (Political observer)
The first week of April witnessed a major turning point in politics in Japan. First, on April 1 the Liberal Party led by Ichiro Ozawa left the three-party coalition that consisted of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the Liberal Party, and New Komeito, a coalition that had lasted for half a year since October 1999. Now the Liberal Party has been split in two, with a newly formed party named the Conservative Party led by Chikage Ohgi joining the ruling coalition and the rest of the Liberal Party members led by Ozawa now out of the coalition.
Second, former Prime Minister Obuchi, after splitting with Ozawa at the top level meeting on April 1, suffered a stroke and was hospitalized in the early morning of April 2. Then on April 4 the Obuchi cabinet resigned en masse and on April 5 party Secretary-General Yoshiro Mori took over as party president with all the Cabinet members intact, now supported by the three-party coalition consisting of the LDP, New Komeito and the Conservative Party. So both the Prime Minister post and the ruling party players changed within these five days.
Having witnessed this political upheaval, one cannot help but suspect political maneuvering behind closed doors. First, the illness and hospitalization of Obuchi were kept completely confidential from the early morning until the late evening on April 2. Furthermore, during that time just a handful of top-level LDP members gathered and planned the post-Obuchi administration. And things seem to have been moving as planned since April 3, leading to the birth of the Mori administration on April 5. It may be that the response and behavior of top-level LDP members were driven completely by a sense of crisis and emergency.
Changes and movements in those five days constituted a turning point in politics in the sense that the election season has virtually begun and the dissolution of the Lower House in May and the general election in June have become almost certain in the face of the expiration of the current term of the House of Representatives in half a year (October 19 to be exact). Since late last year Obuchi had been searching for the best timing to call for dissolution of the Lower House and the general election, and trying to choose among the alternatives of late December, early January, April-May, and around the Okinawa Summit period in July. Recently, however, Obuchi apparently more or less decided to take action after the Summit.
But then suddenly the Obuchi administration collapsed and the new administration has started. The situation has changed completely and the opposition parties that have so far been under pressure are now on the attack. The ruling coalition parties seem to be seeking early dissolution and elections, while the opposition parties are moving cautiously around the incumbent strategy to exploit a dramatic change in government. However, power to dissolve the Lower House is in the hands of the Prime Minister. After the passage of budget-related bills through the Diet around Golden Week in early May, it is likely that the Lower House will be dissolved in mid-May and a general election held in mid-June. This is because the ruling coalition, especially its core member the Liberal Democratic Party, clearly intends to make use of voters' interest in and sympathy for the collapse of Obuchi and his administration in order to secure election victory.
Facing a turning point in politics, all politicians need to go through the test of elections as early as possible, regardless of their past history or political intentions. Further delay would be unacceptable to voters, because we have witnessed frequent changes in administrations since the previous general election in October 1996--from Ryutaro Hashimoto to Obuchi and then to Mori--but no elections. Furthermore, both the nature and configuration of the incumbent have changed from the LDP's dominance in the beginning to the LDP-Liberal Party coalition in January 1999, and then to the LDP- Liberal Party-New Komeito coalition in October that year. And this time Mori has become Prime Minister and the coalition has become LDP-Conservative Party-New Komeito. It is time for a general election and the establishment of a government approved by voters, as the principle of representative democracy demands.
New Prime Minister Mori now plans to visit Russia and the United States in late April, but as the newly and unexpectedly appointed Prime Minister he cannot do much except pay courtesy visits. Whether the Mori administration turns out to be a provisional caretaker government for a general election or a voter-approved mainstream government will depend on election results and the subsequent formation of coalitions among political forces.