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Obuchi Delivers Policy Speech

January 28, 2000

TOKYO (AP) _ Japan’s opposition boycotted the prime minister’s annual policy speech before parliament today in an unprecedented show of disapproval.

It was the first time the opposition has refused to attend the speech. While ruling party members cheered key points, television cameras panning across the chamber showed rows of empty seats where lawmakers would have been sitting.

Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi did not mention a controversial bill to reduce the number of seats in Japan’s lower house that his coalition pushed through Thursday, outraging the opposition.

Instead, the premier focused on pushing forward a slow economic recovery by promising to pump more money into economy.

A record-high $809 billion budget for fiscal year 2000 is likely to deal yet another blow to Japan’s fiscal health. But Obuchi said he would pursue economic recovery even at the expense of a ballooning budget deficit.

``I shall focus my entire efforts on economic rebirth,″ Obuchi said. ``Financial restructuring may be important, but we should not make the mistake of proceeding ahead with it before getting the economy back on a recovery path.″

Obuchi predicted Japan’s economy would grow 1.0 percent in fiscal 2000, which begins April 1.

Japan is slowly emerging from its roughest economic slump since the end of World War II. Unemployment peaked earlier this year at a record 4.9 percent, and companies are restructuring to regain competitiveness.

Obuchi said the government will boost slumping private-demand with incentives for consumers. He added that he will continue to provide assistance to small- and medium-sized venture businesses.

``The Japanese society of the future must be one in which individuals are not buried in the depths of organizations and groups,″ he said. ``Rather, it must be a society in which the individual has the chance to shine.″

The prime minister’s speech came a day after the ruling coalition pushed the long-disputed seat bill through the lower house, with opposition lawmakers boycotting that session as well.

The bill, which is almost certain to be passed as well by the less powerful upper house, stands to reduce the number of lower house seats to 460 from 500. Opposition parties oppose it because they say it will further reduce their representation in Parliament.

The seats eliminated are among the 200 chosen by proportional representation, an election method that favors small parties.

Today’s boycott was meant to protest passage of the bill without concession to or discussion with the opposition.

Though Obuchi’s Liberal Democratic Party and its two coalition partners control 70 percent of the lower house, passing a controversial bill without reaching some form of accommodation with opposition groups is a provocative step in Japan.

``This is proof that the ruling party doesn’t listen to the opinions of the minority,″ said Hidenori Nakayama, an official with the opposition Democratic Party of Japan. ``This should not happen in a developed country.″

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