Japan ponders 'grand coalition' plan

For the first time during the current election campaign, a moderate opposition leader has publicly urged that "new conservatives" and "new progressives" join hands in a grand coalition once the voters deliver their verdicts June 22.

Ryosaku Sasaki, chairman of Japan's fourth largest party, the Democratic Socialists, made the suggestion during a press conference in the Japan sea city of Fukui June 16.

Gone would be the spirit of confrontation that pitted "conservative" Liberal Democrats against "progressive" socialists during the 25 years since both parties were founded as the result of mergers -- the Liberals with the Democrats and the left-wing socialists with the right-wing socialists.

Mr. Sasaki, a veteran politician and labor leader, recently visited West Germany, where he was strongly influenced by the example of the grand coalition -- Christian Democrats, Free Democrats, and Social Democrats -- that ruled the country from 1966 to 1969.

Neither Liberal Democrats nor socialists are enthusiastic about Mr. Sasaki's idea. The two parties are fighting each other tooth and nail in the campaign, and the notion that they should share the government after the election will require much grass-roots persuasion in both organizations.

Mr. Sasaki defined "new progressives" as "forces promoting political reform from the standpoint of being within the Western community." "New conservatives" would be those who gave up the confrontational spirit of the 1950s.

His Democratic Socialists are similar to West Germany's Social Democrats, whereas the Japanese Socialists are further to the left. The Democratic Socialists are hawks on defense, while the Japanese Socialists still cling to the outdated formula of unarmed neutrality.

Nevertheless, Mr. Sasaki thinks the socialist leadership is making a strenuous effort to take the rank and file along with it on a more pragmatic, essentially pro-Western course. Not all socialists could go along with such a line, but Mr. Sasaki thinks there are enough to make the grand coalition idea worth exploring.

Similarly, Mr. Sasaki recognizes that not all Liberal Democrats would want to join a coalition with the socialists. In West Germany, the grand coalition gave way to the small coalition of Social Democrats and Free Democrats that rules the country today.

In Japan, the Liberal Democrats, who are still by far the largest single party, would be most likely to provide the next prime minister regardless of the size of the coalition that ultimately takes shape.

The communists, of course, would be absent from the coalition. One of the things that has made a grand coalition conceivable is the decision of the socialist leadership under chairman Ichiro Asukata to cut its links with the communists. By so doing, the socialists brought themselves closer to the moderate opposition parties -- the Komeito, the New Liberal Club, and the Social Citizens' League.

In the past the Liberal Democrats and the socialists violently opposed each other over fundamental foreign policy -- first and foremost, Japan's security treaty with the United States. Today something much closer to consensus is emerging in this vital field.

This does not mean there is no debate over security policy. But it is far more muted than before. The 20th anniversary of the angry demonstrations that marked the revised US-Japan security treaty of 1960 passed practically unnoticed -- so widely is the idea accepted that the link with Washington must be the cornerstone of Japan's defense.

The Democratic Socialists are a small party. They had only 35 members in a House of Representatives numbering 511. Nevertheless they have the potential to become a link between the Liberal Democrats and the opposition, exclusive of the communists. This is the way in which they see their own influence growing during the coming decade.

The catch in all this, as far as the present election is concerned, is this: Unless the Liberal Democrats fail to secure even a narrow majority, they will not be under any compulsion to form a coalition, large or small.

Thus, the voter still remains king. In the last election, bad weather and disillusionment with the Liberal Democrats led to an unusually high abstention rate. This time, up to 92 percent of voters have said they intend to go to the polls. A high voter turnout usually favors the Liberal Democrats, and the sudden passing of Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira may give the party a "sympathy" bonus.

But in recent years voters have been notoriously fickle. This is the season for pollsters to be nervous and to pray for an election day that has enough sunshine to lure voters to the polls, but not so much that it entices them to the beaches and hills.

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