Japan's 'will they or won't they' parliament

Monday's failure of a no-confidence vote on Premier Mori leaves reform in question.

After a chaotic week in which the administration of Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori defused a no-confidence vote from within its own ruling Liberal Democratic Party, voters have responded with a wave of anger and disappointment. And observers emphasize that Japan has missed a historic opportunity for change.

The challenge to Mr. Mori was the result of not only falling approval ratings during his nearly eight-month tenure, but the public's weariness over the government's lack of improvement to the world's second largest, but still sluggish, economy.

"For Japan to recover, politics must change," says Ippei Yamazawa, an economist at Waseda University's Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies.

The next question is how long a weakened Mr. Mori will last. The embattled premier is still dogged by a reputation for saying all the wrong things, and his approval rating hovers around 18 percent. Some observers predict he will be out by the end of the year, some next spring. It is almost inconceivable that Mori will still be in office when the upper house holds elections in July.

Tensions were high leading up to Monday's challenge, promoted by LDP faction leader Koichi Kato. He has said he would reform the economy by turning away from the LDP's tradition of spending projects and promote more deregulation. But shortly before the vote, Kato's and another faction were persuaded to pull out, and the motion failed by a count of 237-190.

Mr. Kato's no-show shocked and enraged opposition politicians and citizens alike. According to Kato's office, e-mail sent to the lawmaker's site shot up from an average of 1,000 a day to 9,000 since the announcement. His Web site, which encourages an exchange of opinions, has seen nearly a sixfold increase in visits. A day before the vote, the server crashed from the volume. And while 98 percent of last week's mail supported Kato's bold and rebellious moves, fully 40 percent of the post-pullout "explosion" took the legislator to task.

But "Kato did something that was necessary" in presenting the challenge, says Professor Yamazawa. "Even if there were negative [economic] effects at the beginning, in the long term it would have been better" if the motion had passed, he adds.

Kato's last-minute decision to pull out and abstain from voting spells the defeat not only of his personal political hopes, analysts say, but of any hope Japan had of addressing the deeper problems that affect its economy, and proceeding with the deep structural reforms urged by the international community.

Yet Sophia University political science professor Kuniko Inoguchi says, now, "Things will accelerate, policy wise." The no-confidence crisis sent the message that things can't continue the way they have, and, in fact, helped clear the way for younger, reformist politicians "next in line" in the LDP ranks. Although the results make it seem Kato failed, it's "not such a negative message. This is a way to come to terms with the reality for the need to change in a Japanese way," Ms. Inoguchi says.

This argument presumes that Kato will be able to put behind him criticism and the party's loss of faith in him. As Yasunori Sone, of Keio University's political science department argues, with the loss of this opportunity "the lost decade" of poor fiscal and political management has just stretched to 15 years.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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