PRIME MINISTER Ryutaro Hashimoto was rewarded for calling Japan's election early by a return to power with a strengthened Liberal Democratic Party. With 239 seats in the 500-seat lower house, up from 211, the question is where he will find the coalition to provide a majority.
If with the new, third-party Democrats, the price may be fealty to principles of reform that Mr. Hashimoto says he favors. But if sufficient defectors come in from the down-sized principal opposition party, New Frontier, there may be little price beyond patronage.
Mr. Hashimoto is, by Japanese standards, a brash and outspoken politician. So perhaps he is the man to push the permanent bureaucracy down a peg and make the establishment more responsive and deregulate the economy. Yet solid support for his normally ruling party comes from inefficient farmers and small business people who want no such thing.
The reformers had their chance after the 1993 election and, through four prime ministers, blew it. In the resulting disillusionment, this election brought out the lowest turnout in a half-century, just under 60 percent. Self-professed reformers were rebuked. The Liberal Democrats, synonymous with prosperity, protection and corruption, were given a stronger but still weak mandate. The result, in the words of Mr. Hashimoto, "means that we have not regained the full confidence of the people."
Mr. Hashimoto is a strong supporter of the U.S. security treaty and a higher profile for the Japanese contribution to stability in East Asia. But U.S. and other trade negotiators may have no more success than in the past at opening Japan's markets to fair competition.
It is not reform that the Japanese electorate repudiated but the reformers, small party politicians who had been in opposition so permanently that they proved ill-equipped to govern when that opportunity arose. As opposed to the old Hashimoto government, the new Hashimoto government should be more forceful and confident, and that at least is a plus.
Pub Date: 10/22/96