Japanese unsure of next moves after stunning defeat of reform package

January 22, 1994|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Tokyo Bureau

TOKYO -- Economic revival and relations with the United States will have to be put on hold in the wake of parliament's crushing rejection of a vaunted political reform package, observers said yesterday.

The future of the governing coalition has also been cast into doubt.

Yesterday's 118-to-130 defeat encompassed defections from both the opposition and the governing coalition, although more from the coalition. Given the significance of the vote, the results suggest that the coalition itself has ceased to exist. Instead, there is merely a chaotic and insufficient alignment of individual party members, collectively too weak to govern.

But Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa says he will not quit. Several times since his summer election, he had indicated that he would resign if reform could not be achieved -- initially by the end of last year, then by the end of the current Diet session Jan. 29.

Yesterday, he vowed to fight on, emphasizing that he had no intention of leaving his position or dissolving the government.

In a grim news conference, he voiced hope that triumph could still be realized.

"I am not sure, but I think there is room for compromise," he said.

There are several ways in which a reform bill could succeed, including two-thirds support of the lower house, or a compromise between the opposition and the coalition. Neither would be easy to achieve.

After hurried meetings yesterday afternoon, coalition members said that they would like to discuss revisions with opposition members in a joint conference of upper and lower house members.

The Liberal Democratic Party lost power for the first time in Japan's postwar history last summer largely because of its involvement in a series of scandals. Yesterday the party realized its potential to thwart Mr. Hosokawa's efforts to follow through on his campaign promise to institute reforms.

Amid the post-vote scurrying, the once-again crucial LDP was noncommittal, saying it would monitor public opinion before further consideration.

Political maneuvering will almost certainly divert the government's attention from sensitive trade and economic negotiations with the United States that had been expected to culminate Feb. 11, during a summit between President Clinton and Mr. Hosokawa.

It also will delay domestic efforts to pass tax and stimulative spending policies to revive the Japanese economy, which has faltered.

The reform package attempted to transform Japan's electoral system to one that was equally complicated, but less corrupt and possibly more responsive to individuals, rather than


The reform contained two controversial provisions:

* Limiting political contributions to parties, not candidates.

* Shifting the electoral system from large, collective districts to 00 narrower, single-seat areas. The intricate details of the proposal itself, and the lack of a clear linkage between the reforms and the goal of better government, seemed to prevent it from gaining specific popular support beyond a broad enthusiasm for the abstract notion of change.

"I don't know if it would mean anything if it passed, but that it didn't is a problem," said Kobayashi Yoshikazu, a young man out for dinner in a restaurant near the Diet, after the vote.

"In Japan, we wonder if it's just all the same no matter who wins," said one of Mr. Yoshikazu's friends, Shinya Ishimoto.

The pivotal vote came after months of discussions, negotiations and last-minute, U.S.-style canvassing, including direct petitions from Mr. Hosokawa to parliament members.

The proposals had cleared the lower house two months ago and then suddenly lost momentum. The two opposition groups -- the small Japan Communist Party and the large LDP -- became increasingly intent on blocking any motion.

Meanwhile, differences emerged between the eight separate groups comprising the coalition.

These differences emerged over the opening of the Japanese rice market and also the electoral implications of reform, including the prospects that they might suffer as much from the consequences as the opposition.

The single-seat shift was widely thought to imperil the standing of the Social Democratic Party, which already has seen its support wither with the growing unpopularity of socialist forms of government.

Yet when expected dissent emerged yesterday and 17 members of the party rebelled, sending the motion to its defeat, Social Democratic leaders recoiled from the consequences.

"The party's responsibility is grave," said Party Chairman Tomiichi Murayama, who may be forced to resign.

In contrast to most political decisions in Japan, the result of the vote was uncertain until the moment it was taken, since defecting Social Democrats could have been offset by defection from the opposition.

A few, though not enough, did vote for reform.

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