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Vote loss shakes Japan's ruling party

When it was over the prime minister stood up, tears welling in his eyes, and bowed briskly.

The party that has governed Japan for 38 years had just suffered a humiliating defeat, one that could herald the beginning of a multiparty democracy.

The lower house of Parliament, aided by 35 members of the ruling party who voted against Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, approved a motion of no-confidence in the government by a margin of 255-220. A tearful Miyazawa promptly dissolved the legislature, known as the Diet, and called for new elections within 40 days.

The vote was a setback to the Liberal Democratic Party, which was founded in 1955 as a coalition of conservative parties and has been in power since. Public anger over money scandals and the party's failure to enact political reforms has been growing.

"It's like the Berlin Wall coming down for Japan," said Morihiro Hosokawa, who left the LDP last year to found the pro-reform Japan New Party. "Politics will change because of what happened today."

Others were less sure of that, arguing that even after the new elections lawmakers will be unlikely to approve reforms that will curb their power and privileges.

History of scandal

At issue is an essentially feudal political system that coexists with Japan's modern industrial economy. Politicians still buy their way to the top with gifts of cash and political patronage.

Money, rather than policy or ideology, is the fuel of Japanese democracy. Senior politicians dole out paper bags filled with cash to their junior supporters. Constituents seeking favors know to come with pockets loaded.

Miyazawa, whose political career is expected to be finished with Friday's vote, is only the latest politician to be sacrificed in the money scandals that have regularly wracked the Liberal Democrats.

In the late 1980s, he was forced to resign as finance minister in an influence-buying scandal that toppled several prime ministers and deeply shook public confidence in the government.

That affair involved questionable sales of cut-price shares by the Recruit Co., an information services group, to scores of influential politicians, bureaucrats and executives.

Just after he took office in November 1991, Miyazawa's party was hit with yet another slew of corruption charges. The climax came when Miyazawa's key backer in the LDP, political kingmaker Shin Kanemaru, was forced to resign last October after admitting he took illegal donations from a trucking firm linked to organized crime.

The reform that wasn't

Beleaguered by these scandals, Miyazawa's party proposed a reform of Japan's electoral system.

The plan would have abolished multi-seat parliamentary districts, which force lawmakers from the same party to spend heavily while competing against each other. In its place would be a single-seat, winner-take-all system.

The plan was expected to give the Liberal Democrats _ who hold 274, or just over half, of the 512 seats in the lower house _ an even greater majority.

To ensure that minority parties are represented, the opposition parties demanded a proportional representation system in which people would vote for a party, not a person.

Both groups refused to compromise.

Into the standoff stepped the leaders of a renegade faction in the ruling party who have made political reform their clarion call. The rebels, led by former Finance Minister Tsutomu Hata, forced Miyazawa's hand by backing an opposition motion of no-confidence that would force him to resign or call an election.

Although Hata and his partner, former party Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa, stand to gain in the coming election, it is unclear what they would do differently to reform money politics. Most legislators on both sides oppose any changes that would threaten their own positions.

And some critics say that even if the structure of the political system is changed, the customs of gift-giving and patronage will remain deeply rooted in Japan's political culture.

"Even if there is an election, the same kind of legislators remain, and we end up with the same thing again and again," said Teiko Kihira, an independent member of parliament's upper house.

Even so, the champions of reform are expected to reap electoral benefits.

Hosokawa's fledging Japan New Party, which won an unexpected four seats in upper house elections last year, will pick up many more in the coming lower house election, the Kyodo news service predicted. Hosokawa said he would field up to 60 candidates.

Other winners could include followers of former Finance Minister Tsutomu Hata, head of the rebel LDP faction that swung the vote against Miyazawa.

Hata said he will start a new conservative political party. "This is a watershed for Japanese politics," he added. Kyodo news service said members of his faction would quit the Liberal Democratic Party.

"This party has outlived its usefulness," one of the rebels said. "We're ready to join a new force."

Still, the conservative ruling party is expected to keep its majority in the new elections. The party that has the majority in parliament selects the prime minister, and little change in Japan's foreign or domestic policy is expected.

Cries of "Banzai!'

The debate over the no-confidence measure was emotional.

Socialist Party chief Sadao Yamahana, thundering out the motion in the wood-paneled lower house, charged Miyazawa with betraying the public's trust.

"He has betrayed the people by promising political reform and then refusing to allow parliament to debate the issue. The prime minister is a liar," he said.

As Parliament was dissolved, some Miyazawa opponents raised their arms and shouted "Banzai!" _ a rallying cry meaning "long life."

"What happened was very unfortunate," a dejected-looking Miyazawa said. "I was called a liar but that's not true. . . . I really thought I would be able to achieve political reform."

LDP Executive Council member Rokuro Kato said the party would face elections in late July in a state of disarray.

"What this means is that the party is split as it heads into elections," he said. "We're going to fight divided."

The action also cast a shadow over Japan's preparations to host the Group of Seven summit of industrialized democracies in Tokyo on July 7-9.

Only the fourth prime minister to lose a confidence vote, Miyazawa will now greet his summit peers as a lame duck at a time when Japan's allies are looking to it to play a weightier global role.