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For Japan's LDP, Political Curtain Falls - for Now

A coalition of socialists and conservatives hopes to elect the next premier in August

DESPITE diverse political stripes, seven Japanese parties pieced together a patchwork coalition yesterday and now can bring down the curtain on the 38-year rule of Japan's Liberal Democratic Party.

"The party's over for the Liberal Democrats," declared a headline in the Asahi newspaper.

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The new and fragile anti-LDP alliance of socialists and conservatives hopes to elect Japan's next prime minister in parliament by mid-August and then quickly revamp the nation's skewed and corruption-prone electoral system.

But even then, Japan is likely to face months of weak or unstable government, perhaps hindered in its ability to deal with a lingering recession, tough trade talks, and a difficult budget process.

"The new Cabinet will not stay too long," says Kazuo Nukazawa, managing director of Japan's business federation. Many analysts do not rule out a comeback for the LDP if the coalition splinters.

While this latest turn of events in Japan's political crisis has put the LDP further on the defensive, it remains the nation's largest political party, holding nearly 44 percent of the 511 seats in the lower house. But its dominance has eroded quickly since the party lost a no-confidence vote on June 18, suffered a defection of 56 lawmakers, and then fared poorly in a July 18 election.

To recover, the once-powerful LDP has made futile efforts to woo back party defectors and to present a new image by reversing its position on electoral reform. But yesterday it lost another three lawmakers, with possibly more to follow.

Tomorrow, the LDP will elect a new leader from among two candidates, Michio Watanabe and Yohei Kono, who nominated themselves yesterday.

Mr. Watanabe, an old-guard politician who heads a large party faction, is notable abroad for his hawkish views and racist remarks. He had to quit as foreign minister last spring due to his health but now says he is well and that his only problem is "my big mouth."

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Mr. Kono, a close ally of outgoing Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, has been chief Cabinet secretary and a young "dovish" reformer who temporarily split from the LDP in the mid-1970s to protest the Lockheed scandal. He recently criticized Watanabe for seeking a bigger military role for Japan.

"If the only issue is that the LDP has to change, then I have the will and ability to carry that out," Kono said yesterday.

Kono, who is one of Japan's wealthiest lawmakers with extensive land-holdings in Tokyo, represents a group of middle-aged LDP leaders who have been eager to take over the party from the septuagenarians who run it.

LDP leaders tried to convince elderly Deputy Prime Minister Masaharu Gotoda to run because of his clean, tough, and reformist image, but he declined. "It is going to be very tough for the LDP, but this is a time for a change," the ailing Mr. Gotoda said.

The seven-party coalition, meanwhile, will probably select its candidate in the next few days. The most likely candidate is an LDP defector, Tsutomo Hata, leader of the newly formed conservative Japan Renewal Party.

Mr. Hata's experience as a former minister of finance and agriculture is seen as necessary to help the coalition in controlling the powerful bureaucracy.

A second contender is Morihiro Hosokawa, leader of the year-old, reformist Japan New Party and a former local governor. His party, along with an LDP splinter, the Japan Pioneer Party, have held the swing votes in forming the new coalition.

The coalition's shaky leg is the Social Democratic Party, whose antimilitary and anti-United States policies are not easily reconcilable with its conservative partners.

But the party lost nearly half of its seats in the election, and faced with an opportunity to be in government, has agreed to shelve its leftist ideology for now.

"The coalition will be able to find common ground," Hata says. "Its main purpose is to bring political reform."

The other coalition parties are the Buddhist-backed Clean Government Party and the left-leaning United Social Democratic Party and the Democratic Socialist Party. Altogether, the coalition has 245 seats in the lower house, more than the LDP's 224 seats.

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