Japan's MPs squabble over reform

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JAPAN'S political crisis deepened last night as the government and opposition parties failed to narrow their differences over proposals to clean up the country's corrupt politics, setting the stage for a showdown in parliament today and possibly new elections. Earlier in the day the Prime Minister, Morihiro Hosokawa, made an impassioned speech on television to the Japanese people, saying the country faced political and economic chaos if reform laws were not introduced in the current Diet (parliament) session, which ends on Saturday.

'If we cannot realise political reform . . . the people's loss of confidence in Japan's party politics will become irrevocable, and it is clear that Japan will completely lose the trust of the international community,' said Mr Hosokawa. But with deep splits in the seven-party governing coalition and the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the chances of substantial political reform now appear slim.

Today, Mr Hosokawa proposes to hold a meeting with Yohei Kono, the LDP president, to make one last attempt at a compromise. But Mr Kono's room for manoeuvre is limited by two opposing factions within his own party: old-generation hardliners, who oppose any reform, and a younger generation of politicians who favour reform and are threatening to bolt the party. Mr Hosokawa may try to force the issue and split the LDP by calling a full vote in the Diet. And in the background to the parliamentary struggle is a corruption investigation by public prosecutors, who may issue arrest warrants for three senior LDP politicians on Sunday after the Diet closes. Members of parliament cannot be prosecuted while the Diet is in session.

Mr Hosokawa's government came to power last August pledging to reform the country's corrupt money politics.

But despite overwhelming public support for reform, he has faced dogged resistance from elected politicians who fear their ability to collect 'donations', and even their parliamentary seats, would be endangered by alterations to the current system. A package of reform measures was voted down in the upper house of the Diet last Friday, and since then the government and the LDP have been negotiating over a compromise.

The LDP has been holding out, among other things, for a provision allowing individual politicians to continue receiving political funds from corporations. Mr Hosokawa's plan ruled out such donations to individuals, which are seen as one of the main sources of political corruption. The Prime Minister's aides say the LDP's position is hypocritical, and does not embrace reform at all. The two sides are divided on the extent of a proposed new system of proportional representation in general elections.

There was posturing on both sides. In his televised speech for public consumption, Mr Hosokawa said: 'I will not remain prime minister for a minute if political reform is not achieved,' an apparent promise to resign and call new elections if the new laws do not go through. But only minutes later he told political reporters back in his official residence that: 'I only uttered something as a matter of course . . . I am not thinking of dissolving the House or Representatives for a general election or of disbanding my cabinet.'