WORLD

SAYONARA, MIYAZAWA

JAPAN'S RULING LIBERAL DEMOCRATIC PARTY SUFFERS ITS WORST ELECTORAL SETBACK IN 38 YEARS

SCOTT STEELE,SUVENDRIN1KAKUCHI,LUKE FISHER August 2 1993
WORLD

SAYONARA, MIYAZAWA

JAPAN'S RULING LIBERAL DEMOCRATIC PARTY SUFFERS ITS WORST ELECTORAL SETBACK IN 38 YEARS

SCOTT STEELE,SUVENDRIN1KAKUCHI,LUKE FISHER August 2 1993

SAYONARA, MIYAZAWA

WORLD

JAPAN'S RULING LIBERAL DEMOCRATIC PARTY SUFFERS ITS WORST ELECTORAL SETBACK IN 38 YEARS

He was once the mightiest politician in Japan, a feared backroom manipulator who could make or break careers. He masterminded the ascent to power of four prime ministers, including Kiichi Miyazawa in 1991. But one year ago, Shin Kanemaru, onetime leader of the most powerful faction of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), acknowledged that he had improperly accepted a $5-million contribution from a Tokyo trucking firm under investigation for possible links to organized crime. He was fined $2,000 and resigned as party vice-chairman because he did not want to be a “personal obstacle” to the man he put in office, Prime Minister Miyazawa.

But the damage was already done. For many Japanese, fed up with years of corruption and so-called money politics, Kanemaru’s conduct was the last straw. Public outrage undermined support for Miyazawa’s government, forcing national elections on July 18. And last week, on the very same day that Kanemaru, 78, looking pale and sitting in a wheelchair, entered a Tokyo courtroom to plead not guilty to additional charges that he had evaded more than $11 million in taxes, a humiliated Miyazawa resigned. His party, which has governed uninterrupted since 1955, had suffered its worst-ever electoral showing.

While the LDP, with 223 seats, fared far better than any of its eight major rivals, it failed to capture an outright majority in the 511-member lower house of Japan’s Diet, or parliament. That outcome left the party scrambling to cobble together enough support from independents and smaller parties to cling to power. But LDP infighting, coupled with moves by opposition parties to form their own coalition, have pushed the normally staid world of Japanese politics into an unprecedented period of uncertainty. And while it is difficult to predict who will eventually prevail, the country’s social and political landscape may never be the same.

Since 1988, the government has been repeatedly rocked by allegations of corruption. But the ongoing crisis came to a head on June 18, when, in the midst of wholesale defections, Miyazawa’s government lost a nonconfidence vote over its failure to enact promised political reform. That forced the snap, and fateful, election. Throughout the campaign, three conservative parties founded by former LDP members promised to toughen campaign finance laws and reform the electoral system, which encourages pork-barrel politics.

LDP candidates countered by claiming credit for rebuilding postwar Japan into an economic superpower. They also tried to capitalize on the traditionally conservative electorate’s fear of change, arguing that, in recessionary times, the country could not afford the instability of a loose union of anti-LDP forces.

To an extent, that negative campaigning paid off: voters sent a clear message that they were disgusted with corrupt politicians but were in no mood for radical change. Against the new conservative anti-LDP parties—which together captured 103 seats—the once-powerful Social Democratic Party slipped from its previous total of 134 seats to a mere 70. “With the end of the Cold War, the Japanese had no qualms about dumping on the Socialists,” said Robert Orr, an expert on Japanese politics. “They voted for stability.” Added Jacob Kovalio, a professor of history at Ottawa’s Carleton University and president of the Japan Studies Association of Canada: “Voters were critical of the politics of the LDP, not of the policies of the LDP.”

But while many Japanese credited the probusiness LDP for their general prosperity, some had less high-minded reasons for supporting the party. “I am depressed like I have been after every election,” said a 47-year-old Tokyo housewife who declined to give her name for fear that it could harm her husband’s career. “My husband and his colleagues were herded into trucks and forced to campaign for an LDP candidate who is supported by the construction company he works for. This is company policy.” Other LDP backers were openly critical of its leadership. “Japan needs electoral reform,” said defence researcher Kazuhiko Ogawa, 45. “Right now, there is nobody strong enough to lead Japan through these changes. Sometimes, I wish we had Saddam Hussein here—with different ideals, of course.”

The new “reformist” politicians—some of

whom were once allied with corrupt LDP bosses—managed to tap general disillusionment caused by repeated government scandal. Until the factions split from the LDP, disenchanted conservatives had little real choice. “People were resigned to their disgust because they could see no alternative to the LDP,” said Manabu Shimizu of Japan’s Institute of Developing Economies. “Votes given to the opposition parties were protest votes.”

But the inconclusive results left both the LDP and a five-party opposition coalition, spearheaded by ex-finance minister Tsutomo Hata’s new Japan Renewal Party, desperately trying to curry favor with two other LDP splinter parties: the Japan New Party and the Harbinger New Party, which together could hold the balance of power. While at week’s end both parties remained uncommitted to either camp, their leaders insisted that they would not back a government unless it promised immediate electoral reforms, stiff anti-graft laws and a ban on political donations from private firms. Such radical measures are unlikely to be accepted by the LDP, which generally favors the status quo and has long depended on business’s backing. Predictably, the Renewal party’s Hata welcomed the demands. “This is very much like our own basic policy,” said the party leader, touted by some as a possible coalition prime minister. “It looks like we can form a viable government.”

Meanwhile, the LDP struggled to choose a replacement for Miyazawa. At a heated emergency convention, party hardliners proposed that the succession issue be settled in the usual style—through backroom deal-making. But younger party members forced the old guard to agree to a wider secret-ballot vote on July 30, leaving old-style faction bosses with drastically reduced influence. The

younger wing is pushing for the reinstatement of 62-year-old former prime minister Toshiki Kaifu, known as Mr. Clean to his supporters. LDP hardliners dumped Kaifu for Miyazawa in 1991 because they saw him as too eager to embrace reform.

Miyazawa will now convene a special session of parliament, beginning on Aug. 2, to choose a new prime minister. But with no party holding a majority, it is unlikely that any government can survive for long, and voters may soon have to return to the polls. In the meantime, day-to-day policy is not expected to change radically, given both the conservative nature of the predominant parties and the power of the bureaucracy and business leaders. Said a senior official at the Japanese Embassy in Ottawa: ‘There will be a major political change, but spread over a long time span.”

SCOTT STEELE

SUVENDRIN1KAKUCHI

LUKE FISHER