Sun Almost Sets On Japan's Drive To Reform Its Politics

With the reform bill defeated, Prime Minister Hosokawa has limited options in dealing with the ensuing chaos

WHEN Morihiro Hosokawa was chosen as Japan's prime minister five months ago, he vowed to make political reform his top priority. But last Friday's crushing defeat of a package bill on which Mr. Hosokawa had staked his political career has left his administration in disarray.

The bill was designed to introduce a more equitable electoral system to Japan and ban the practice of giving donations to individual politicians. Supporters say it would have prevented the kind of bribery scandals that have plagued Japanese politics for decades.

Yohei Kono, president of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, can hardly conceal his delight. For weeks his party had boycotted committee meetings debating the bill in an effort to force Hosokawa into a compromise. The LDP may be in a minority, but it is traditional for the ruling party in Japan to reach a consensus with the opposition before passing important legislation. ``The contents of the bill and the government's attempts to force the bill through parliament were unacceptable to the upper house of parliament,'' Mr. Kono said on Friday evening.

The defeat of the bill has left Hosokawa with little alternative but to draft a compromise bill in cooperation with the opposition LDP. ``I am not considering a Cabinet resignation.... We still have some days to go before the Diet (parliament) session ends.... There should be more room than before for a compromise,'' Hosokawa said.

But Hosokawa knows that any compromise acceptable to the LDP - the party which governed Japan for 38 unbroken years until it was ousted last year - will be far less reformist than the original bill.

Hosokawa also knows that time is running out. The present parliamentary session ends Jan. 29, and the government cannot afford a further delay in passing legislation that has already been held up months by opposition filibustering.

The political deadlock comes at a difficult time. Japan is currently mired in trade negotiations with the United States. Following the conclusion of the Uruguay round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade talks last month, Washington is once again getting tough with Japan over trade, and Hosokawa desperately needs to resolve these issues before he meets President Clinton in Washington on Feb. 11.

The US views Japan's political crisis so seriously that Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen made an unscheduled stop in Tokyo yesterday to discuss the situation with Hosokawa and Finance Minister Hirohisa Fujii. Mr. Bentsen and Mr. Fujii agreed on the need to successfully conclude trade talks before the Washington summit. But they did not discuss details. Officials on both sides admit that the talks are bogged down.

Japanese business leaders are also eager to see an economic boosting package passed in parliament. The government is expected to implement around $60 billion in income tax cuts, as well as public works projects designed to stimulate the economy. Not only have those measures been further held up by the political wrangling, but even the government's annual budget may now be delayed.

The biggest loser in the reform bill debacle could be the Social Democratic Party of Japan. Although the SDPJ lost half its seats in parliament in last year's general election, it remains the largest party within the ruling coalition. But its members are bitterly divided over the political reform issue. Some are concerned that the new system will weaken the party, while others say the proposed bill does not go far enough, and that Japan needs a far more radical overhaul of its political system. It was the defection of 17 Social Democrats last Friday that secured an opposition victory in the reform bill vote.

Analysts believe that differences within the SDPJ could cause the party to split, further weakening Hosokawa's fragile coalition, and complicating a possible compromise on political reform.

But while opposition leaders try to win voters' sympathy by portraying the recent months of political uncertainty as a symptom of a weak government, popular opinion seems to be placing blame for the failure of political reform at the feet of the LDP.

With Hosokawa's popularity still riding high, at about 60 percent, observers say the LDP is unlikely to see itself back in power if a snap election were held.

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