SOMETIME before the end of January, a law is going to be passed that will usher in a new political era for Japan. At least that is the hope of its promoters - Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa and his coalition partners, among them the man who has pushed the longest and hardest for it - Ichiro Ozawa.
For Japan, the law is revolutionary. Instead of the present multi-seat constituencies, there will be single-seat districts combined with proportional representation designed to ensure alternation in office by two major parties. The House of Representatives, the more powerful of the Diet's two houses, will have 271 single-seat districts and 229 seats to be allocated by proportional representation - that is, in proportion to the vote totals of the various parties.
The new law will not change the physical shape of the chamber in which the House of Representatives meets. But mentally, it moves away from the hemicycle concept of most parliamentary chambers, including the United States Congress, to the sharply adversarial concept of Britain's Westminster, the ``Mother of Parliaments,'' in which members of the ruling party and of the opposition face each other on banked benches across a fairly narrow aisle.
The Japanese love consensus - on the surface, anyway. How will this new style suit the Japanese temperament?
The Liberal Democrats ruled Japan for 38 years through a kind of consensus politics, if not in substance all the way, at least part way in form. With close to a two-thirds majority most of the time, they granted the opposition parties the right to delay legislation, but not to hold it up altogether. On some bills, compromise was possible. But on those involving fundamental differences of constitutional interpretation - for instance on whether or not to send Self Defense Forces to Cambodia as part of the peacekeeping operation - the Socialists, the principal opposition party, would employ every parliamentary tactic to keep the bill from coming to a vote. The Liberal Democrats would humor the opposition for a while but would, in the end, push the bill through by sheer weight of numbers.
The media often umpired: If the ruling party rushed a vote through without sufficient time for deliberation, newspaper editorials would accuse it of exercising the ``tyranny of the majority.''
Messrs. Hosokawa and Ozawa want to change all that. They want to solidify the disparate members of the coalition into one or at most two parties with a credible chance of keeping power under the new electoral system. They want real discussion and debate in the legislature, not a papering over of differences with a surface consensus.
Even before the reform bill is passed - in fact, as a part of the means by which it is to be passed - they have inaugurated this new style. The coalition government's majority in the Diet is a respectable 20 votes or so, depending on the issue: If the coalition partners are united, they can get any bill through. At first the government tried to get all-party support for the reform bill, proposing revisions to make it more palatable to the Liberal Democrats. But when that approach got them nowhere, the emphasis shifted to solidifying government ranks. The Socialists, though deeply divided on what the bill will mean for their own future as a party, have been skillfully courted by their coalition partners, and the long-stalled reform bill is expected to move through the various stages of the legislative process to a final vote before the current parliamentary session ends Jan. 25.
The Liberal Democrats fume that the government, disregarding parliamentary traditions built up during their decades in power, is attempting to impose a parliamentary dictatorship. Ozawa in particular is accused of being the gray eminence behind this new style. It's a difficult argument for outsiders to understand. In a democracy, the majority should not ride roughshod over the minority. But the minority cannot forever delay a vote, and in a vote the majority should prevail. That may not be the rule of consensus politics, but it is the rule of democracy.
If, along with electoral reform, the government can make the new Westminster style stick, a fascinating new period in Japanese politics will begin.