Party politics blooms in the Tokyo spring

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 August, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 August, 1993, 12:00am

WHEN the Japanese Government fell in June to a vote of no-confidence, as a result of major defections from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), there was a tendency, particularly by some American observers, to exaggerate the change that was about tobefall Japan.

Now that the LDP has lost the general election to a motley array of opposition parties and is about to move on to the opposition benches for the first time in its history, there is a tendency to go to the other extreme and doubt whether the motley array can in fact achieve any worthwhile change.

Neither view is accurate. Immediate radical changes in government policies were never on offer. Reform was coming about because the LDP was breaking up, with - perhaps - one of the segments becoming, at long last, both liberal and truly democratic.

But this perspective should not cloud the fact that in Tokyo today it is springtime in mid-summer. Some fascinating political buds appear likely to bloom.

The mould in which Japanese politics has been firmly set is about to be broken. Barring last-minute sensations, this week the first non-LDP government in 38 years will be confirmed in office.

A man who, by Japanese standards, can be classified as a maverick will become Prime Minister, while a man long disdained as a former party rebel will become the LDP Leader of the Opposition. After 45 years, during which the opposition parties did their best to avoid both power and responsibility, seven of them, plus one political group in the upper House of Councillors, are finally accepting both.

Looming just over the horizon is the possibility that Japan will finally graduate from being what was effectively a one-party system to that of a full-blown two-party democracy.

The new ruling coalition has even managed to hammer out a paper setting out a basic policy outline, key policy themes, a basic agreement and a list of numerous other important tasks, all of which appear to have attracted more criticism than approval.

The fourth item of the basic agreement between the new ruling coalition states that it will ''show its readiness to co-operate in promoting peace and development in Asia and the world with repentance for involvement in World War II.'' Coming after the long months and years in which the LDP has sought to obfuscate the issue of provision of foreign ''comfort women'' for Japanese troops during the Greater East Asian War, and when Japanese ''apologies'' have always been imbued with bureaucratic caution, this statement is certainly refreshing. So is the twice-mentioned commitment to new education policies which help ''bring up individualistic and independent persons''.

SOURCES in the coalition also indicate that it will try to amend the Ministry of Education's textbooks which have tried to teach generations of Japanese that, in relation to the Pacific War, there is nothing about which they should be penitent.

Similarly, with the document stressing that the coalition will maintain the US-Japan Security Treaty and observe the ''Japan-(South) Korea Basic Treaty'', 38 years of Socialist Party history go out the window. The Japan Socialists have never accepted thesecurity treaty and have recognised only North Korea. Whether this coalition agreement will encourage the extreme left to leave the Socialist Party, and perhaps join up with the communists remains to be seen.

Against these positive signs, there is one non sequitur. The coalition promises to ''aim at concluding the Uruguay Round of trade talks but oppose liberalisation of rice imports''. Prime Minister-to-be Morihiro Hosokawa is one of the few Japanese politicians to openly say what many privately admit - that the ban on rice imports has to end. If it doesn't, the Uruguay Round will fail. The hope must be that Mr Hosokawa will use his prime ministerial prerogative to get Japan to accept the inevitable.

The document's stress of the twin policies of deregulation and decentralisation certainly bears Mr Hosokawa's imprint. But when all is said and done, the document becomes the outward show and should not be confused with the coalition's inner substance. It is noteworthy mainly because some effort was made to state the new government's principles, after the long LDP years when seniority and factional balance were the main considerations prior to a new administration getting underway.

It would be a mistake to assume, as many critics at home and abroad have already done, that the new ruling coalition in Japan will itself bring about change in government policies. The glue which holds the motley array of parties together is the common commitment to change the political arena in such a way that policy change will, in future, be the natural consequence of greater political debate, and of politicians more inclined to take control of the bureaucrats placed under them.

So, while much of the coalition's document seeks to reassure by indicating that old LDP policies will be sustained, its very first paragraph conveys the honne (vital essence) of the new administration: ''The coalition government will pass sweeping political reform, introducing the single-seat electoral system, strengthening punishment on corruption, and abolishing political donations by business concerns, through the Diet by the end of the year.'' THIS is the key agenda. Already some coalition sources are hoping these political reform bills will be passed by October, a seemingly unrealistic expectation which, in turn, may indicate concern lest the new government falls before this essential task iscompleted.

Can the first Hosokawa administration fulfil such an ambitious target and timetable? Certainly the election of Mr Yohei Kono as LDP Opposition leader helps somewhat since, presumably, he will be trying to get his party to vote for reform too rather than mindlessly oppose it.

It will be worth the coalition's while to seek consensus over reform with the LDP. This may take a little more time, but LDP confrontation over the reform bills seems unlikely.

As he laid down his terms for supporting the original five coalition partners, Mr Hosokawa insisted on a formula of 250 single-member seats and 250 seats from proportional representation to make up the 500 seats in the next House of Representatives.

The political devil here is in the details. How and where are the boundaries for those 250 single-member seats to be drawn? Both the LDP and the Socialists have long benefited from the old electoral system's bias towards the rural areas.

The new opposition parties, by contrast, find key support in the urban areas, so they will want to bring the old gerrymander to an end. Then there are the numerous dynastic vested interests arising from the electoral boundaries as they are, which could spark dissent on all sides of the new House.

Passing the reform bills, in other words, could well put the coalition under great strain, given the narrowness of its majority. Defections by extreme left Socialists may be balanced by further defections from the LDP to the coalition, but no one can be sure.

However, there is optimism in the new coalition's ranks. Already there is talk of further amalgamation among the smaller opposition parties and maybe even the more sizeable ones. This is in anticipation of another election being held by the end of the year when the single-seat constituencies are already in place.

An even more compelling reason for believing that the Hosokawa administration will fulfil its essential purpose lies in the fact that the new Mr Fixit of Japanese politics, former LDP secretary-general Mr Ichiro Ozawa, has been a key player in bringing about the miracle of an opposition coalition government.

Now that a great opportunity for changing the Japanese political landscape has been created, it will not be wasted if Mr Ozawa can help it.