Japanese party scrambles to survive LDP tries to exploit money, fear again

June 25, 1993|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau

TOKYO -- Like an overage heavyweight on the ropes, Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa's Liberal Democratic Party is struggling get back the one-two punch that made it the undisputed champion of Japanese politics for 38 straight years.

But new blows land every day, and there is no sign the LDP has yet laid a glove on its growing array of opponents since the collapse of the government last week.

A newspaper poll published yesterday gave Mr. Miyazawa's Cabinet the lowest approval rating in four decades of Japanese opinion surveys -- 10.4 percent.

The poll demonstrated that the governing party's popularity, which was already slipping to the 20-percent levels that usually signaled to a prime minister that it was time to go, had taken a dive. The same newspaper's monthly poll had shown it at 26.3 percent in May.

Forced to call a new election for July 18, Mr. Miyazawa's party has been trying all this week to land its time-tested one-two punch:

ONE: Fear among Japanese voters -- fear that the main opposition party, the Socialists, is too inept and too leftist, and, now, a new fear that any coalition government would soon fall apart.

TWO: Money -- hundreds of millions of dollars, assembled mainly by putting the arm on big businesses for contributions and on banks for loans, and used largely as "gifts" to voters.

But the punches seemed to lack their old power.

For LDP candidates, a key part of campaigning always has been attending every available social event, including weddings and funerals, and handing to key people envelopes that typically may contain 10,000 yen, about $92.

It was this money-bloated system that led to last week's vote of no confidence.

Millions of Japanese were revolted in March by the sight of tax agents and prosecutors raiding the homes and offices of LDP ex-kingmaker Shin Kanemaru and carrying out cardboard boxes containing tens of millions of dollars in bearer bonds, cash and gold bars. Rebels within the LDP seized upon this revulsion as their chance to break the leadership's grip on power.

This week, governing party elders hit up the Bankers Association of Japan for $182 million in loans from member banks, the Mainichi Shimbun, the country's biggest-circulation daily, reported. The bankers have not yet replied.

Nine big commercial banks lent a total of $136 million for the 1990 parliamentary election, at an interest rate of 6.875 percent, the paper said. No rate was cited for this year's request.

The head of Keidanren, the country's most powerful business association, has said his association will continue to contribute only to the LDP for this election. In past parliamentary elections, its political action wing has contributed as much as $120 million to the governing party and its candidates, according to Japanese news reports.

But the LDP's swollen war chests have themselves become a central election issue. Even these long-faithful sources of big political money are starting to waver.

Gaishi Hiraiwa, chairman of Keidanren, allowed this week that his association might have to rethink its one-party contributions if a stable and moderate coalition emerged after this election.

And bankers' association members are fretting about public criticism if they lend the LDP so much to campaign against an array of opponents who are clamoring for "reform" of the ossified and money-bloated political system, Mainichi said.

Tuesday, LDP elders tried out a new line of rhetorical attack. It asserted that any coalition government formed after the election could never survive the policy differences between the left-leaning Socialists and the right-of-center new "reform" elements borne of splits in the LDP.

Yesterday, the LDP tried out another new kind of punch.

It asserted that the Shinseito (Renaissance Party), the fastest-rising of several new parties, was out to "dupe" the public by claiming to be "reformist."

In fact, chief Cabinet spokesman Yohei Kono asserted, the new Renaissance Party is led by two of the disgraced Mr. Kanemaru's closest associates, who had to form their own group after a losing attempt to take over when scandal cost the boss control of his faction within the LDP.

Prime Minister Miyazawa promptly endorsed the new line of attack.

The new tack is much more risky than the traditional approach of campaigning only against the unpopular Socialists. There is no way to use it without reminding voters of the LDP's own string of scandals.

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