In Japan, Both Governing Party and Opposition Encounter Hard Times

April 28, 1991|By JOHN E. WOODRUFF

TOKYO — Tokyo.--August 9, 1989, is a date Toshiki Kaifu and Takako Doi will remember all their lives.

Mr. Kaifu, abruptly raised only a few days earlier from obscurity in the middle ranks of the governing Liberal Democratic Party's smallest major faction, became prime minister of Japan.

Miss Doi, head of the Socialists, the country's biggest opposition party, became both the first woman and the first opposition member ever chosen for prime minister by either house of the Diet, Japan's parliament.

On television and in the next day's papers, it was Miss Doi's personality and the novelty of her symbolic achievement that dominated.

"This day," she promised at one press conference, "is the beginning of the end of the long dominance of Japanese politics by the Liberal Democratic party." A real two-party system, with parties alternating in power, was within reach, she told several other audiences.

The 20 months since that heady day have been long, frustrating and often embarrassing for the leaders of both of Japan's two biggest political parties.

Those frustrations -- and the fact that they run equally deep for both the governing party and its principal opposition -- are a measure of how underdeveloped politics still is in the country that has risen from the ashes of World War II to become the planet's leading symbol of fast-track economic development.

Miss Doi no longer talks of soon throwing the LDP out of power. She is too busy denying never-ending rounds of rumors that she will soon resign as head of a party that has just suffered one of the worst electoral defeats in its history. Her party, sporting a new English name, the Social Democratic Party of Japan, lost hundreds of seats in local legislatures this month, and with them the chance to groom candidates the party will badly need in future elections to the Diet.

Mr. Kaifu has survived in office far longer than most commentators expected on that August day, and his tenure has spanned a stunning resurgence that has seen the LDP recover from scandals and public outrage to win convincing election victories. But survival and victory at the polls have run parallel with a long string of humiliations and almost monthly reminders of deep factional splits and leftover wounds from two years of scandal, which still often immobilize both his party and his government.

It has become an almost routine public event for some senior leader of his party to lament, rather than to celebrate, the likelihood that an LDP prime minister will defy all earlier predictions by serving out his full term, which ends in November.

"The Cabinet of Prime Minister Kaifu will continue even though dissatisfaction with the prime minister is simmering within the party," Michio Wanatabe, head of one of the LDP's most powerful factions, declared last week during an address to a meeting of 200 businessmen and editors.

For both Miss Doi and Mr. Kaifu, the roots of frustration and humiliation lie precisely in the same forces that brought them to their special August day.

Both rose as beneficiaries -- Miss Doi directly and Mr. Kaifu by indirection -- of a wave of voter outrage at Mr. Kaifu's party.

That outrage had melded together anger at the passage of a 3 percent sales tax, disgust at the sums of money politicians had received from insider stock deals with the high-flying Recruit business combine, and farmers' fears that the LDP was starting to cave in to foreign pressure to speed up the opening of Japan's agricultural markets.

In an election that July, it had been that outrage that stripped the LDP of its long-held majority in the House of Councillors, the upper house of the Diet, and opened the way for that house's symbolic gesture of naming Miss Doi as its choice for prime minister.

Those same election results at long last shook the LDP's elderly power brokers enough to make them cast about for a new and cleaner-looking prime minister, who turned out to be Mr. Kaifu.

But the old men who run the LDP factions never liked turning over the most coveted prize in the party's grasp to a man 20 years their junior and based in a virtually powerless faction of the party. Indeed, they chose him precisely because he seemed unlikely to be able to cling long to the office.

From the day of Mr. Kaifu's election, the old-time power brokers made no secret of their determination to seize the first chance to get back to politics as usual, rotating among themselves the prime ministership and the goodies that go with it. The more Mr. Kaifu has succeeded in leading the party to a rising tide of electoral victories, the deeper have been the undercurrents among senior power brokers eager to divide up the spoils.

And instead of a clarifying victory for either side, the 20 months since August 1989 have brought a deepening standoff, both between the parties and within the LDP.

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