Coalition to take on jobs predecessor allowed to founder

JAPAN'S FRAGILE NEW REGIME

July 29, 1993|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau

TOKYO -- A government of immense ambitions and a minuscule minority seems set to take over Japan in a few weeks with the country wallowing in the depths of its worst postwar recession.

The fragile seven-party coalition will replace the Liberal Democratic Party that presided over this country's postwar "economic miracle" and has held power without interruption since Dwight D. Eisenhower's first term as president.

The new coalition comes in a rainbow of political colorations ranging from Socialist to Buddhist but centered about two new "reformist" groups only slightly less conservative than the LDP.

It promises to take on a long list of jobs the Liberal Democrats couldn't or wouldn't do:

* End the long-standing multi-seat districts for the powerful lower house of the Diet, Japan's parliament. The system is widely blamed for promoting "money politics" by forcing candidates from the same party to run against each other. In its place they would put an array of single-seat constituencies for about half the chamber's 511 positions and proportional representation for the other half.

* Enact laws to phase out the hundreds of millions of dollars contractors, big corporations and powerful business associations have poured into LDP coffers for decades.

* Make lawmakers more independent of Japan's deeply entrenched and widely respected bureaucracy.

* Cut income taxes to jump-start the economy by leaving more cash in consumers' hands -- if the seven can agree on what to do about the lost revenue. Ministry of Finance bureaucrats doggedly oppose this idea, which makes it a likely early test of wills. The Clinton administration will love it, as a way to increase demand in Japan and draw in imports to help trim Tokyo's bloated trade surpluses.

The seven coalition parties, in saying they had enough votes to form a government, said they had pieced together about 19 or 20 votes from independents to add to their own approximately 244, a potential total of up to 264; 256 is a majority in the lower house.

One widespread assumption is that the potentially unstable new government would aim to force its political reform program through, then quickly call new elections within six months or a year.

For its part, the LDP appeared yesterday to be preparing already for the next election, having seemingly given up hope of being part of the new government.

The LDP groomed one of its own most-respected "reform" leaders, chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono, 56, to take over as party president tomorrow from Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, who will resign from both jobs as soon as successors are elected.

"Kono is a choice the LDP can make only when it already knows its hopes lie in the next election, not in the present Diet," said Yoshi Sakamoto, a magazine editor. "Only nine days ago, the LDP looked like it could form the core of a coalition government, but they have dallied and bungled at every step until now they can scarcely do business with each other."

The LDP emerged with 224 votes in the 511-seat house after the July 18 election and added five "independents" this week for a total of 229. Three members bolted the LDP yesterday, cutting its strength back to 226. It is still by far the biggest single party in Japan.

But its mostly septuagenarian leadership, long accustomed to back-room deals among faction leaders, seemed dazzled by the pace of post-election developments and blind to the demands of new times.

"Too little, too late, and above all never credible at any point since the election," political commentator Minoru Morita declared one point. ". . . The LDP as we knew it is committing suicide and doesn't know anything else to do."

In the days right after the election, Mr. Miyazawa refused to give up the prime minister's post until a rebellion by his own party's reform-minded younger members forced his hand.

By that time, two new swing parties -- the Japan New Party (JNP) and the Harbinger Party -- had held party meetings. In the absence of swift internal moves toward LDP reform, the swing parties' leaders gave in to their members' demands that they throw their combined 49 votes to the non-LDP coalition.

By early this week, when the LDP in desperation adopted an electoral district plan resembling one drafted by the new swing parties, it was too late.

Even the choice of Mr. Kono, whose "reform" credentials include having led 18 members of the New Liberal Club out of the LDP in 1976 to protest the Lockheed scandal, will not go without a hard-line challenge.

Michio Watanabe, 70, a gruff faction boss, also put himself in nomination yesterday for tomorrow's party presidency vote. Mr. Watanabe, so ill he had to resign as foreign minister before the Tokyo industrial summit early this month, was said to see this week as his last chance at high office.

The seven coalition parties still have much to negotiate. Their leaders will meet again tonight to go on hammering out details of the new government.

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