TOKYO -- Japan's Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa won his job last summer. He got to keep it yesterday, in a way that moved the country closer to the most dramatic political reform since the end of World War II.
Months of back-room negotiations and a final, U.S.-style, brute shove, pushed a political reform package through a critical committee of the lower house of the Diet, Japan's parliament, and on to likely passage by the full body at the end of the week.
Failure to get a reform package passed in the wake of a series of political scandals doomed Mr. Hosokawa's two predecessors and tore the reins of leadership from Japan's Liberal Democratic Party in August for the first time in 38 years. Upon assuming office as the head of a fragile coalition, Mr. Hosokawa staked his office on getting a reform bill passed by the end of the year and set Friday as a deadline for the key lower house vote.
Success on political reform could provide critical leverage for the prime minister's other efforts to profoundly change Japan's conduct in trade, taxation and deregulation.
"Now, as we face big problems here and abroad, such as the economy, I think what most people want us to do is to conclude these political reforms as soon as possible and start taking care of those issues," Mr. Hosokawa said.
The Hosokawa plan would transform Japan's Byzantine electoral system into another at least as complicated but perhaps less driven by vast campaign expenditures and the resulting demand for large contributions.
Currently, multiple seats are drawn from a single district, with the result that many candidates from the same party actually run against each other in the general elections in extremely expensive races. The costliness of political races is often cited as a major reason for the wave of bribery scandals that has swept Japan during recent years.
Under the plan, every district would be redrawn, a huge task to be done by a committee reporting to Mr. Hosokawa. Seats in the lower house would be reduced from 511 to 500, with 274 allocated to single-seat districts and 226 for the more traditional multi-candidate districts.
Donations to individual politicians will be banned, but they could still be received by parties. All contributions in excess of approximately $500 would have to be disclosed. About $2.50 from each Japanese citizen would be paid to political parties, generating a total of 30.9 billion yen (approximately $300 million). New laws will be instituted.
How these changes will affect the shape of Japan is a matter of much debate. Gregory Clark, a professor at Sophia University, said the best part of the change would be to eliminate the tremendous expense of intraparty races, but he warned that it could also centralize power with the richest parties.
The victory required extraordinarily adroit diplomacy by Mr. Hosokawa, who heads a coalition of eight political parties, some of which have radically different agendas. On Saturday, the full Socialist Party put aside deep internal divisions to give the prime minister unequivocal discretion in his negotiations with the opposition Liberal Democratic Party. The rest of the coalition did likewise on Sunday, putting to rest persistent concern that the government could not hold together long enough to pursue substantive change.
That support is probably adequate to get the bill through the lower house, but on Monday and yesterday Mr. Hosokawa engaged in negotiations with Yohei Kono, head of the Liberal Democratic Party, still Japan's largest political organization. Facing an impasse, Mr. Hosokawa slightly adjusted his proposal to increase the ratio of individual seats but foreclosed further talks.
"It is very regrettable that we could not gain [the Liberal Democratic Party's] understanding, but at this point we just have to go our own way solemnly," Mr. Hosokawa said.
The measure passed by a 21-19 vote yesterday and could be voted on by the full lower house as early as this week.
"The face of Japanese politics is just beginning to change now for real," said Takeshi Sasaki, a political scientist at Tokyo nTC University. "This shows that the government now has the political will to move on to the other issues: reform of the administrative system, reform of the economy, and even the trading system."
Kenzo Uchida, a popular political commentator, remarked: "When this passes and an election is held under the new system, the old political structure will be in chaos."