Leading Article: The ground shifts under one-party Japan

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THE END of Japan's anachronistic one-party rule has been forecast many times, particularly over the past few years as corruption scandals have multiplied. Many people did not think the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) could survive the 1989 Recruit Group scandal, which cost it its majority in the upper house, or the 3 per cent consumer tax, which provoked a sharp popular backlash. But survive it did.

Is the present crisis so different that it will at last bring real change? Possibly. The resilience of the LDP was a product of circumstances that are now altering. Throughout the Cold War the party was a reliable bulwark against Communism. The opposition was largely left-wing and anti-American, calling for nationalisation of industry and removal of US forces. So convenient to the government were its unpopular policies that the LDP at times helped to finance it.

At the same time the LDP itself was such a broad coalition of factions that it could accommodate a fairly wide range of views and allow room for debate while appealing to the Japanese preference for consensus. Its vast, corrupt patronage machine also offered much greater rewards to those who joined it than to those who opposed it. Most important of all, it was good at managing the economy, creating conditions that fostered rapid growth and technological advance. Voters did not like it much but the alternatives always looked worse.

The ground is now shifting under the feet of the LDP. The end of the Cold War has made it safer to challenge old ways, particularly for a younger generation that is growing up with less reverence for authority than its fathers had. Criticism of the LDP that has been building up for some time has been brought to a head by the recession, which for the first time has hit both Japan's domestic and export markets simultaneously, inflicting deep pain and uncertainty on the country itself. It is not all the fault of the LDP - but the party gets the blame, like other democratic governments. Its role as guarantor of growth has been shattered, and it cannot even manage its relations with the United States. Voters are asking whether the inflexible system is as much to blame as the politicians who happen to be in power. In lean times they also find it harder to tolerate the conspicuously ill-gotten wealth of the politicians - a book on the 'concept of honest poverty' has sold 600,000 copies.

This is the background to the crisis now sparked off by the first open, structural split in the LDP. Tsutomu Hata, a former finance minister, has emerged as leader of a rebel group of 55 party MPs who either voted against the party or abstained in the no-confidence motion last Friday. Mr Hata says that his group will co-operate with opposition parties after the elections on 18 July.

His demands - electoral reform and laws on bribery - are familiar; they have been discussed for some time by the LDP without result. But his challenge is new in modern Japanese politics, and has more substance than past disagreements among the party's factions. With luck, it may bring Japan the multi-party system it has needed for so long.