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Is Democracy Breaking Out in Japanese Politics? : Reform: Liberal Democratic Party members are going their separate ways, and the voters appear fed up with scandal. But don't hold your breath.

June 27, 1993|Alex Gibney | Alex Gibney, who was executive producer of the PBS series "The Pacific Century," is working on a documentary about Japan's crime syndicates.

Will the fracturing of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the call for new elections usher in a new era of politics more receptive to the needs of Japan's citizens, more internationally engaged and more willing to accede to U.S. demands that Japan should boost domestic spending even as it dismantles barriers to imports?

The rumblings in Japan's Parliament may feel like a major political earthquake, but they may also be nothing more than surface temblors. When the shaking stops, the house the LDP built may still be standing--though the name on the door may be changed--and the fissures that do appear may not represent much more than factional disputes.

Certainly, there is real public dissatisfaction with Japan's "money politics." Because the LDP and its political ancestors have been in power since 1948, buying influence in Japan is one-stop shopping. Though Japanese voters are legendary for forbearance in the face of scandal, their patience combusted when Japan's savviest old politician, Shin Kanemaru, was caught cavorting with gangsters, peddling influence with gusto and hoarding a cache of political contributions and payments for government construction contracts valued at $20 million.

In response, the electorate now seems poised to throw the bums out. Recent polls indicate that 90% of eligible voters will cast ballots in the July 18 election. That doesn't augur well for the Liberal Democrats and their leader, Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, whose approval ratings in some polls are below 10%.

Accordingly, it is not surprising that conservative politicians are scrambling to form new parties. The most popular renegade seems to be Miyazawa's former finance minister, Tsutomu Hata, whose 10-year stint with a bus company has given him a common touch. A ubiquitous talk-show guest, Hata's appeal flows from his willingness to explain complicated political and economic concepts in ways that voters can understand.

The brooding presence behind Hata is ex-LDP power broker Ichiro Ozawa. Together with 42 comrades, they have formed a new political party, called Shingesto (Renaissance). Following the July elections, they believe they can form a coalition government with a variety of opposition groups, among them the Socialist Party. Meanwhile ex-Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu is forming a 105-member reform group within the LDP, while 10 more renegades have established Sakigaka (Harbingers), which is seeking an alliance with another LDP breakaway, The New Party, led by Morihiro Hosokawa, a former governor.

If the LDP has all the democratic instincts of Marie Antoinette, and Japan's voters want heads to roll, why then will there be no revolution?

* The LDP's breakup would only shatter an illusion of unity. Born of the union of the conservative Liberal and Democratic parties in 1955, the LDP has always been a group of disparate factions lead by strong personalities and held together by common interests: corporate growth, anti-communism and a foreign policy guided by U.S. interests.

* Calling men like Hata, Ozawa and Hosokawa "reformers" is a bit far-fetched. As one Western official responded when asked about Hata, "Former finance ministers aren't known for their 'Young Turk' mentality." A former protege of the disgraced Kanemaru, Ozawa is known as an unscrupulous back-room politician whose shady connections were recently mocked in a cartoon that portrayed him as a waiter in a bar serving gangsters. All three men know how to press the existing levers of power, but not how to build a new machine.

* The Hata-Ozawa break with the LDP was less about ideology than politics. Miyazawa, a professed believer in reform who lacks the political skills or influence needed to make it happen, detested Ozawa so much that he helped launch a purge inside the party called the "Ozawa Hoimo," or the "Encircle and Siege Ozawa Movement." Rather than be surrounded, Ozawa and Hata bolted.

* Even if the new parties gain in the coming election, it is difficult to see how the "new" conservative groups will be able to paper over their ideological differences with the Socialists so they can form a coalition government. For years, Japanese voters have enjoyed the Socialists as the perennial opposition; they trust them to criticize the LDP, but not to govern.

Now some frustrated younger Socialists are trying to move toward the center. But it is hard to imagine how a party that still opposes the idea of armed forces can find common cause with a man like Ozawa, who wants to expand the role of Japan's military. Political reform is not a reliable glue to hold the body politic together. Indeed, that is just what Miyazawa is telling voters: A coalition government will bring nothing but chaos, after which people will beg for the LDP.

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