Japanese Reformers Revamp Democracy

Government proposals aim to shift power from rural to urban voters and eliminate political corruption

UNTIL December, the country with the world's second- largest economy will be absorbed with reinventing its democracy.

Japan's new government has dedicated itself almost solely to revamping politics, from how candidates should campaign to how many parties are needed to stir up debate in a nation long accustomed to one-party and bureaucratic rule.

``The next three months will be a moment of truth for Japanese politics,'' says Kazuo Aichi, policy director for the Japan Renewal Party. The prime minister, Morihiro Hosokawa, says he will resign if political reform fails to pass parliament by year's end.

Japan's lack of such basic democratic traditions as regular transfers of power between political parties has crippled its ability to cope with many challenges, say leaders of the seven-party coalition government. Japan must become a ``normal'' industrialized nation, says key coalition strategist Ichiro Ozawa, and modify its ``groupism'' mentality.

Other nations, especially the United States, may have to wait for answers on economic disputes while politicians tussle over the basics of governance. ``If we succeed in political reform,'' Mr. Aichi says, ``then we can address economic issues in full.''

Japan first adopted the forms of Western democracy nearly 125 years ago, then redesigned them after World War II, and is now taking up the task again after the 38-year rule of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) ended in June amid money scandals.

For the past month, former opposition parties, both old and new, have patched together a government largely held together by their desire for political reforms aimed at preventing another LDP-style dynasty.

``The establishment of the coalition was one step toward breaking up collusive politics, in which politicians [often] lie and yet manage to get away with skirting responsibility,'' says Mr. Ozawa, a former LDP insider.

With some irony, analysts quote former LDP kingpin Shin Kanemaru, whose confession of his large-scale corruption one year ago sparked Japan's political upheaval. ``It is necessary [for Japan] to undergo a catharsis by yielding the reins of government to opposition parties,'' Mr. Kanemaru reportedly said.

Such Jeffersonian sentiments are now coined by Japanese reformers. In their dreams of a fuller democracy, Ozawa and Prime Minister Hosokawa have echoed foreign analysts from the ``revisionist'' school who contend that Japan's ``unique'' culture has failed to fully adopt democracy.

ON Aug. 27, after two weeks of internal debate, the seven parties in the coalition agreed on the basic outline of political reform that will be used to draft legislation for parliament to take up in mid-September.

The coalition's core proposals would end the present system in which candidates, even of the same party, compete for several seats in one district, ending up with 511 lawmakers in the powerful lower house. The system has helped breed corruptive pork-barrel politics and fosters little debate over issues. In its place would go 250 single-seat districts, in which voters would choose only one winner. Another 250 seats would be selected by ``proportional representation,'' in which voters would choose a party to fill the seats. Voters would cast two ballots each.

The plan also would redraw political districts, which alone would transform Japanese policies by reducing the voting strength of rural areas and give more influence to urban voters. Another big change would allow candidates to campaign door-to-door rather than just from vehicles with megaphones.

The plan's simplicity belies the hard bargaining that went into designing it. Smaller parties worried that too many single-seat districts might wipe them out, leaving an American-style system of two major parties, which Ozawa prefers.

The coalition failed to decide on whether to ban corporate donations to political parties, but agreed to review the issue in five years. But it does want to ban corporate donations to individual politicians, which would deal a blow to the comeback hopes of the LDP.

The LDP will soon propose a plan of its own, but many analysts say that its strategy is to delay reforms in hopes of forcing a new election. ``We are resolved to regain control of the government in the near future,'' Yohei Kono, LDP president told parliament.

To supplant corporate money, the coalition proposed $600 million in state subsidies to parties, or about $5.50 per Japanese. In recent years, politicians raised more than $3 billion a year, according to public funding reports.

The coalition is also exploring an American-style idea of allowing taxpayers to give 1 percent of their income tax to a party. This system would force politicians to devise policies for voters rather than big business, as the LDP often did.

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