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Japan's Longtime Opposition Party Struggles for Relevance

Mizuho Fukishima stands an excellent chance of being elected to the upper house of Japan's parliament this Sunday. But even if she is victorious, she'll be fighting a losing battle.

A pioneering lawyer known for candid commentary on television, the dynamic and diminutive Ms. Fukushima is making her first attempt at public office. The problem is that she has joined the Social Democratic Party of Japan (SDP), a venerable but nearly defunct political organization.

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The direction of Japan's politics is murky and uncertain, as it has been for years, but the decline of the Socialists, as the Social Democrats used to be known, is unmistakable.

For most of the post-World War II era, the Socialists functioned as a compliant opposition, challenging the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. They were never a real threat to the LDP - during the cold war most Japanese looked resolutely toward the West - but in this consensus-oriented country they were a counterbalancing force. The ruling party often moderated its policies to quiet Socialist opposition.

Four years ago, faced with the decline of leftist parties everywhere, the Socialists forged an alliance of convenience with the LDP, backing away from some long-held positions.

One turnaround was their recognition of US-Japan security ties, under which the United States maintains some 47,000 troops in this country. After decades of opposing this arrangement, the Socialists changed their minds nearly overnight, explaining that they were updating their stance to reflect reality. In exchange for these concessions, they got to rule in concert with the LDP.

The voters were not impressed. For example, in the 252-seat upper house, the less powerful of Japan's legislative branches, the Socialists held 66 seats after a good showing in a 1989 election. After Sunday's vote, according to pollsters, they'll be fortunate to hold onto a handful.

Other opposition parties are fragmented and disorganized - with the exception of the Communist Party of Japan, which analysts say will do well on Sunday. That group has stuck to its principles, kept its name, and been increasingly recognized by frustrated voters as a party of conscience.

"There is nothing so tragic as the declining power of the Japanese opposition parties today. It's hitting bottom," says Minoru Morita, a political analyst. Some experts and political leaders have longed to see the emergence of a two-party system here, but for now it is not to be.

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After lobbying members of parliament for two years on a variety of issues, Fukushima decided she should take action. "It's unhealthy to see the country's decisionmaking process only being dominated by a certain group of politicians," she says in an interview. "The SDP is one of the few parties in Japan where fresh voices are still heard and respected."

INSPIRED in part by the American consumer activist Ralph Nader, Fukushima says she decided to run because of encouragement from the Socialists' leader, Takako Doi, and because of a desire to "support Japan." Of the 126 seats being contested on Sunday, 50 will be filled on a proportional representation system in which voters are asked to select parties, not candidates. Fukushima is first on the Socialists' list of proportional representatives, meaning that she is all but guaranteed a seat.

In spite of the difficulties she is likely to face in rebuilding her party's strength, her presence in the Diet will be a victory of another sort. Says Takeshi Sasaki, a political scientist at Tokyo University, "The only visible change in Japan politics since the beginning of the 1990s is the increase in the number of women members.... [Perhaps] they can provide some new information and outlooks."

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