- The Washington Times - Friday, February 23, 2001

TOKYO While the administration of Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori is teetering on the brink of collapse, the trend toward political change is gaining momentum, according to opposition-party lawmakers.

With House of Councilors elections five months away which could take control of the upper house away from the Liberal Democratic Party's (LDP) coalition the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition party, is predicting victory, said DPJ policy chief Katsuya Okada.

"We will win. We are confident that we will take the majority," Mr. Okada said unequivocally, adding that the opposition camp expects to have 10 seats more than the current ruling bloc after the balloting.

A total of 121 seats in the 247-seat chamber will be at stake in the July election. Since the ruling coalition the LDP, New Komeito and the New Conservative Party holds 60 seats, it needs to win 64 or more seats to retain its majority.

If the LDP-led bloc fails, the DPJ, which now has 58 seats, is widely expected to form a coalition with the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party.

The LDP has been hobbled by the nation's faltering economy, a string of scandals and Mr. Mori's gaffes.

The latest and most harmful to the prime minister came early this month when the U.S. nuclear-powered submarine Greeneville hit and sank a Japanese training vessel off the coast of Hawaii, with nine presumed dead. The incident occurred in the early afternoon of Feb. 9, but it was midmorning the next day in Japan a Saturday and Mr. Mori stayed on the golf links another two hours after hearing the first sketchy reports.

After that decision, more people, even his closest allies, pressured Mr. Mori to resign. According to the latest poll by the Japanese broadcast station NHK, public support for the Mori administration plummeted to 5.4 percent, the lowest since its start, while its disapproval rate soared to 82.4 percent.

"The public has voted for the LDP for the last 10 years even if they didn't trust the party and didn't expect that it could make any difference in their lives. They did so because they thought there was no other choice," said Minoru Morita, a Tokyo-based political analyst. "But they have begun to realize that the Mori administration is worse than the opposition parties."

The DPJ, however, has yet to attain as much support as it needs to govern because a majority of Japanese are not attracted to any specific party.

Analysts say the DPJ is handicapped because Yukio Hatoyama, the party president, and Naoto Kan, its secretary-general, lack leadership and popularity, and disunity is shaking party ranks.

Mr. Okada disagrees, arguing that Mr. Hatoyama "has his own convictions and determination. He can make a good prime minister. And we've been aware of differences, but we've been united more than ever."

During the last decade, some opposition parties tried to unseat the LDP and succeeded twice. The political shifts, however, did not last long. Some analysts expect a DPJ-led coalition to result in another failure, even if it defeats the LDP-led bloc.

Pema Gyalpo, a Tibetan author and professor at Gifu Women's University, said he doesn't think that a DPJ-led coalition would change anything.

"Both LDP and DPJ members waste a lot of time attacking each other instead of having policy arguments," said Mr. Pema, who has lived in Japan for more than 35 years. "In order to win, the DPJ has to convince the public by showing how the people will benefit if they vote the party into power."

That seems to be the DPJ's trouble. Mr. Okada insists the party will not sweet-talk the public.

"We aim at a policy of reforms, so we would like the public to be more patient," said the 47-year-old lawmaker, who bolted from the LDP 7 and 1/2 years ago. "We would deprive vested interests and overly protected groups, and we would not create demand by pouring tax money into public works. We want to make a strong economy, cultivating our competitive power."

The DPJ made some gains in the House of Representatives election in June, increasing the number of its seats in the lower house from 95 to 127 while the LDP lost 38 seats. Its victories came in metropolitan areas, but the DJP did not do well in the countryside, the LDP's traditional stronghold.

But public support for the LDP has eroded even among voters in agricultural villages since their local economy has borne the brunt of Japan's protracted economic stagnation, analysts say.

The anger of local business leaders and small-business owners toward the LDP and the United States has been mounting particularly, said Mr. Morita.

They call former President Bill Clinton and former Treasury Secretaries Robert E. Rubin and Lawrence H. Summers "burglars," he noted. They believe the Americans "took away Japan's wealth by taking advantage of its ignorant leaders."

As some economic advisers for President Bush did recently, an increasing number of Japanese have criticized the Clinton administration for repeatedly urging Tokyo to continue its huge deficit spending until growth is restored.

Many believe the Japanese government which they view as a U.S. "subordinate" simply did as it was told by Washington and ended up with an incredible amount of debt. The nation's debt stands at around 666 trillion yen or $5.74 trillion, which is about 1.3 times its annual gross domestic product.

If the DPJ-led coalition takes political power, "we would make our own decision, whatever the United States and other countries say," Mr. Okada said. "We would present our views, and make our point."

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