japan starts to change

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 January, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 January, 1994, 12:00am

JAPAN'S Prime Minister, Morihiro Hosokawa, has emerged from his battle over political and anti-corruption reforms with his authority battered and diminished, but intact. In the harsh world of Japanese politics this is the best that could realistically have been expected.

Mr Hosokawa made some big concessions. But he has secured reforms which will help make the political system fairer and less corrupt. And he has forced the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to paint itself again as the party of ''money politics'',which will be helpful to Mr Hosokawa's coalition when it fights an election on a day which may not be too far away.

All this is preferable to an alternative which seemed all-too-likely last week: Mr Hosokawa quitting his post after the defeat of the reform legislation, his coalition shattered and in no state to take on the LDP in an election campaign. All this would have meant a return to business as usual, as it had been since 1947, in Japanese politics.

Mr Hosokawa was forced to back off both the main political and anti-graft reforms, giving ground to the LDP. He had to agree to a new electoral system which favours big parties at the expense of smaller ones to a greater degree than he originally wanted.But at least he secured an electoral system which will be fairer than the one which helped keep the LDP in office for 38 years. And he had to concede that individual politicians could still receive donations from companies. But at least he won a limit of 500,000 yen (HK$35,000) on such gifts, which are a continuing scandal in Japanese politics. They are also subject to a time limit of five years. After that, they will stop.

The Prime Minister's standing with the electorate has suffered as a result of his compromises. Opinion polls show the most voters believe his coalition needs a shake-up. But the LDP has given him a valuable gift: by resisting electoral reform, it has confirmed that it is the party of power for its own sake; by resisting the anti-graft reforms it has confirmed that it is the party of money. Above all, it has confirmed that it has not learned the lesson the voters gave it when they elected Mr Hosokawa last year. It remains determined not to change its ways. All this will be a powerful weapon for Mr Hosokawa as he strives to win back the voters' respect. For the electors will not transfer it to an unrepentant LDP.