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Japan Opposition Nears Unity on Reform : Politics: An accord on changes in electoral system would be the base for a non-Liberal Democrat coalition government.


TOKYO — Six of seven opposition parties that could form a coalition in Japan for the first time since 1948 reached apparent agreement Friday on political reform that would be the base of a non-Liberal Democrat government.

Leaders of two key parties announced that they would demand acceptance of a new reform plan as the price of their support in a coalition.

The two parties, the 14-month-old grass-roots Japan New Party and the New Party Harbinger, formed in June, hold decisive parliamentary votes in the alliance against the Liberal Democrats, who fell 29 seats below a majority in last Sunday's election. Four other opposition parties backed their reform demand, and the chairman of the Socialist Party--the traditional opposition force that also fared poorly Sunday--said he believed he could persuade his party to go along, too.

Morihiro Hosokawa, leader of the Japan New Party, and Masayoshi Takemura, a Liberal Democrat rebel who founded the New Party Harbinger, reversed previous statements that they would remain outside any Cabinet that is formed after the lower house elects a new prime minister.

Hosokawa and Takemura, both of whom have served in Parliament and as prefectural (state) governors, proposed that Japan's multi-seat constituencies be changed into a system of single-seat districts combined with a form of proportional representation.

They demanded that potential coalition partners agree to enact the reform by the end of this year.

In multi-seat districts, in which as many as six representatives are chosen by voters casting a single ballot, winners can get elected with as few as 20% of the votes. The campaigning for these votes is very costly and often pits members of the same party against each other. They tend to ignore policies and focus instead on what pork-barrel projects representatives have brought to their constituents.

So far, the five parties already in the alliance have been leaning toward choosing former Finance Minister Tsutomu Hata as prime minister.

He bolted the ruling Liberal Democrats in June and helped establish the Japan Renewal Party with the former secretary general of the ruling party. The rebellion triggered a no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, split the ruling party, and deprived it of its 38-year control of the lower house.

Not since 1947-48, when the Socialists participated in two short-lived coalitions, has Japan had a coalition government.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats set dates for their own election to choose a new party president to replace Miyazawa, who resigned Thursday.

Candidates endorsed by 20 members of Parliament will register Wednesday, give policy speeches Thursday and then vie in balloting by legislators and one party official from each prefecture Friday.

The party election marks a historic change for the Liberal Democrats, who have always tried to choose new leaders through back-room negotiations among leaders of factions.

Two of their last four leaders were selected without a vote, and party elections held in 1989 and 1991 both were formalities to rubber-stamp decisions made by factional bosses.

Younger Liberal Democrats fought down a leadership proposal Thursday to choose a new president once again through such discussions.

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