Japan's new prime minister plays unexpected political hardball

Unassuming facade, shrewd sense of what people want

August 18, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

TOKYO -- When Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi began his thoroughly unexpected rise in the polls a few months back, the growing support for him had scant relation to his government's policies.

It stemmed instead, analysts said, from the inexplicably reassuring feeling he had sent to a nation stuck deep in economic doldrums, coming across as its warm and fuzzy, even slightly absent-minded uncle.

Polls have consistently shown that Obuchi's most winning features are his seeming lack of arrogance, his personal modesty and his self-deprecating humor.

So scarcely anyone sensed what was coming this month when Obuchi cobbled together the largest governing coalition that Japan has seen in decades and pushed through Parliament a raft of measures far more ambitious than any other prime minister has managed in the recent past.

Given his early image as an unassuming politician with a hint of the pushover, what is perhaps most surprising is his merciless, if quiet, use of hardball tactics.

"If you ask Obuchi a question about the economic system or his vision of the country and its history, he may be unable to give you much of an answer," said one schoolmate of the prime minister and former senior official.

"But he has a very shrewd sense of who is with him, what those people want and how their support can be bought. In other words, he is a born politician, almost in the mold of a Lyndon Johnson."

These political abilities shone last week when Obuchi forced the junior members of his governing coalition, the Liberal Party, to back down from their threat to pull out of the alliance unless the prime minister's Liberal Democratic Party supported a measure to reduce the number of seats in Parliament.

Early on, the pro-business Liberal Party's alliance with the Liberal Democratic Party drew support for Obuchi's Cabinet from business and gave Japanese voters the impression of a new dynamism in the government. What it lacked, however, was the votes needed to pass constitutional changes and authorize referendums.

That kind of majority will be needed to pass a contentious amendment early next year that will allow Japan to play a larger role in cooperating militarily with the United States and acting in its own self-defense, after decades of pacifism enforced by a postwar constitution dictated by Washington.

To this end, Obuchi recently turned to another opposition group, the New Komeito Party, to form an even bigger alliance.

Pub Date: 8/18/99

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