Mr. Uno's Opportunity

JAPAN'S new prime minister, Sosuke Uno, comes to office under a cloud. His party, the dominant Liberal Democratic Party, is rattled by a seemingly endless influence-buying scandal. Most observers expect Mr. Uno - chosen by the party bosses for his freedom from corruption - to be a weak, interim figure, marking time until the LDP's real powers can reassert themselves. But such outcomes are not inevitable. Uno, until last week the foreign minister and a man with relatively little proven skill in domestic politics, may be the person to actually do something about a system of multiple-seat districts and politician-businessman coziness that almost foreordains an avalanche of money into the coffers of successful officeholders. His inaugural speech before the Diet, or parliament, indicated a desire to get at the sources of corruption.

The Japanese public wants reform. Elections for the upper chamber of the Diet, a body with little real power, come in July. Voters may take the occasion to send the LDP a message: Reform or be rejected.

The party's top people are acutely aware of the discontent. They hope that Uno can initiate enough reform to palliate the public - and they may be perfectly willing for the new leader to be the fall guy should the LDP suffer an electoral setback.

It's to be hoped that the prime minister, an accomplished diplomat, will fool the prognosticators, take up political reform, and follow up on his promise to ``go to the very roots of this affliction.'' That would mean going beyond a few new, easily circumvented laws about financial disclosure to the fostering of a genuine change of attitude. Above all, office-holding has to become a matter of public trust, rather than personal aggrandizement.

The problem isn't just Japan's. The United States government is undergoing a similar trial, also driven by a relentless press. In both places democracy works well, but needs to be freed from corrupting practices that breed cynicism about elected officials.

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