Japan's Opposition Woos the Voters. Corruption scandal has handed the opposition its best political opportunity in decades. BREAKING OLD HABITS
A NEW publicity video for Japan's Socialist Party pointedly compares the modest home of its leader, Takako Doi, with the plush house of Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita. This is but one example of how the Socialists, among others, are exploiting Japan's massive corruption scandal which has handed the opposition its best political opportunity in decades.
On the surface it appears that after more than 40 years in the political wilderness, the opposition may now have a chance to turn the ruling conservatives into a minority party in the next elections.
But many analysts here say there is still little hope that the opposition will prevail. They cite the deep differences among the opposition parties, the lack of popular confidence in their ability to govern together, and Japan's deeply embedded fear of rapid change.
Even opposition leaders say credibility is their key problem.
``People don't feel confident to ask [the opposition parties] to take over,'' Satsuki Eda, leader of the United Social Democratic Party (USDP) told a recent seminar. ``But people's hearts have already said farewell to the LDP [the ruling Liberal Democratic Party].''
This contradiction shows up in poll results. The Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest daily, conducted its monthly political poll just before Prime Minister Takeshita's resignation last month, showing only 7 percent support for the government.
Since the Recruit scandal broke last June, support for the Socialists went up only from 11.3 percent support to 17.5 percent.
The other opposition groups gained marginally. But the number of Japanese expressing no party preference shot up from 26.3 to almost 40 percent.
The continuing strength of the conservatives, despite the scandal, is testimony to the appeal of long years of stable government which has delivered substantial economic progress. They have ruled, with the exception of a brief Socialist-led government in 1948, since the end of World War II.
In 1955 several conservative parties coalesced into the LDP. The party enjoys a tight relationship with the business community and with the powerful bureaucracy, from whose ranks come many LDP parliamentarians.
``The Japanese people don't like drastic change,'' explains Rikyu Shibusawa, Socialist Party vice-chairman. While the rise of affluence has made the Japanese less worried about the danger of change, an opposition coalition still is ``unstable compared to the LDP,'' he says.
To respond to that fear, the leaders of four parties met in Kyoto on April 7 and began a process aimed at reaching common policies for a coalition government. Aside from the Socialists, the meeting included the leaders of the Buddhist-linked Komei (Clean Government) party, the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP), and the smaller USDP.
Excluded from the meeting was the fourth largest opposition party, the Communists.
Officials of the four parties met Thursday in Tokyo and released a draft common policy platform including proposals for political ethics, tax reform, and social welfare.
There remain sharp policy differences - principally between the Socialists and other parties - especially over foreign policy. The Socialists have a long-standing position calling for Japan to become an unarmed, neutral state. They oppose the US-Japan military alliance and favor dismantling of the Japanese military. The parties also differ on policy toward Korea, with the Socialists maintaining close ties to North Korea. Most Japanese do not support these views.
IN recent years, the Socialists have moderated their views somewhat. They have opened ties to South Korea and stressed their anticommunism by aligning with the Komei and DSP rather than with the Communists. Party leader Shibusawa sees a narrowing of differences with the other parties, partly as a result of the lessening of confrontation between the West and the Soviet Union.
Even if it moves closer on these issues, the opposition must still overcome the view that it has no comprehensive policies which offer a practical alternative to those put forward by the conservatives.
``These are not opposition parties - these are parties of protest,'' a Western diplomat says. ``They articulate positions that will never come to majority status in Japan.''
In the structure of postwar politics, the opposition has acted as a check on the LDP and as representatives of various interest groups. The Komei's voter base is composed almost entirely of about 7 million households of the evangelical Soka Gakkai Buddhist sect, which grew rapidly in the '60s mainly among rural people alienated by moving into urban areas.
The DSP, which split from the Socialists in 1960, represents the right wing of the labor movement, with some support from liberal professionals. The Socialist Party has traditionally relied on support from organized labor as well. The Communists are the ``purest'' of the opposition, with support among labor and the disaffected.
Behind its anti-LDP rhetoric, the opposition regularly wheels and deals with the ruling party in the Diet (parliament). Recently, while boycotting budget deliberations to press demands for full investigation of the Recruit Company scandal, the opposition was negotiating with LDP leaders. The more moderate DSP and Komei have been more willing to make such deals, encouraging the belief that they would readily join a coalition government with the LDP.
The opposition, he says, ``is also tainted by plutocratic corruption.'' Indeed members of the Socialist, Komei and DSP were also recipients of funds and cut-rate stocks from Recruit, along with ruling party parliamentarians. The DSP chairman was forced to resign for this reason. And the Komei chairman has been linked to another corruption scandal in which arrests are expected soon.
The Recruit scandal opened the door to a historic shift in Japanese politics. But Mr. Eda says, ``If the opposition fails to change the situation, people's distrust of politics will continue long into the future.''