Socialist to lead Japan in odd-couple alliance

June 30, 1994|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun

TOKYO -- Just when Japanese politics seemed incapable of getting any weirder, it did.

Japan elected its fourth prime minister in less than a year yesterday when the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) -- the most conservative faction in parliament -- threw its support behind an archenemy, the 70-year-old Socialist Party leader who has spent his long career opposing it.

Tomiichi Murayama became the Socialist Party's first prime minister since 1948, elected by a 261-214 vote in the lower house of the Diet, or parliament. In brief comments after his election, he said, "If I can be of any help, it would make me happy."

Before the vote, he said he planned to dissolve parliament and call new elections, giving rise to speculation that the marriage of convenience would soon end in divorce.

Though Mr. Murayama was named prime minister, it was clear that his power stemmed from the LDP's more than 200 votes in parliament to the Socialists' 74. "After one year, we are back in power," crowed Yoshiro Mori, a leader of the LDP, alluding to the party's stunning defeat last summer that ended 38 years in power.

NHK public television said in an early morning broadcast that the biggest share -- 13 of 20 Cabinet posts -- would likely go to the LDP, the archrivals of the Socialists during the Cold War.

It said that the Socialists would take five Cabinet posts and parcel out the last two to a minor party in the coalition.

Adding to the uncertainty, Mr. Murayama has never held a Cabinet-level post, and his public comments, sometimes delivered at length, tend to provide almost no information on his views.

"He is not a very articulate politician," said Kumiko Inogushi, a professor at Sophia University in Tokyo. "To many people he is unknown. But he played a typical political game, and he played it well. What he says is not important. What is important is how he behaves."

The change in government raises numerous questions concerning the relationship between the United States and Japan.

The new government replaces two short-lived and often ineffectiveadministrations that nonetheless made determined efforts to open up Japan's markets and work cooperatively with the United States on economic and security issues.

Mr. Murayama's Socialist Party has been supportive of North Korea and long held a strictly pacifist line, challenging the constitutionality of providing logistical support to U.S.forces in case of an emergency.

These are crucial issues, given the delicate negotiations in progress with Pyongyang over its nuclear program and the possibility of war.

On trade, Mr. Murayama, a fisherman's son and a former labor leader, had favored complete protection of the Japanese rice market until he and the party relented in December.

Mr. Murayama comes to the job in the midst of protracted negotiations over the opening of a number of key sectors of the Japanese economy, including telecommunications and financial services.

In less than two weeks, he will represent Japan at the G-7 summit of major economic powers. Japan has been the primary target of other G-7 countries because of its persistently high trade surpluses and closed markets.

Asked about the meeting, Mr. Murayama was quoted by the Kyodo News Service as saying, "There are many things requested [of Japan], such as tax reduction and deregulation. I want to research such items sufficiently to cooperate internationally."

Mr. Murayama's unlikely victory came in a wild finale last night.

For decades, his party had been the liberal opposition to the Liberal Democratic Party, challenging its conservative views, particularly on economic and security issues.

The LDP offer to form a coalition with the Socialists prompted a former LDP prime minister, Toshiku Kaifu, to bolt the party and make a desperate and almost successful dissident run for his old job with the backing of reform parties.

Within hours of Mr. Murayama's election, unattributed comments from business leaders and bureaucrats were filtering through the Japanese media challenging his qualifications; the yen was hovering at a record high, and a new opposition was bitterly denouncing the LDP-Socialist alliance.

"This collusion [between the LDP and the Socialists] is the last struggle of two parties trying to stick to the logrolling politics that dominated Japan since 1955 [when the LDP first gained power]," said former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa, a leader of the reform movement that toppled the LDP last summer.

A crucial issue is whether the Socialists will be better disciplined now that they lead a coalition.

After the fall of the LDP last summer, the Socialists became a key component in the first reform government, headed by Mr. Hosokawa. But the defection of a key bloc of Socialist Party members derailed the Hosokawa government's initial efforts at political reforms.

The defeat undermined the momentum of the Hosokawa administration. A subsequent reform package was passed, but many of its key measures were quietly stalled or blocked by conservative Socialist Party members.

The party finally withdrew from the next reform government formed by Prime Minister Tsutomu Hata. The party's withdrawal deprived the Hata government of its parliamentary majority, leading to its collapse last weekend.

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