Political Aftershocks Continue to Shake Japan

Further crumbling of ruling party signals possible end to 38-year reign in next election

WHEN President Clinton arrives in Tokyo next week for a summit, he will land in the middle of a risutora (restructuring) now sweeping Japanese politics.

The expression is used by Japanese to describe the momentous political shifts as a result of the crumbling of the once-monolithic rule of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party.

The LDP lost a key vote in parliament on June 18 as two factions broke from the party for its failure to fix the nation's corrupt electoral system.

The LDP received another blow yesterday when one splinter group, Shinseito (New Life Party), formed a coalition with four opposition parties.

The new mix of left- and right-wing politicians stands a chance of winning lower-house elections on July 18 and formally ending the LDP's 38-year reign. "The LDP might fall apart even further after the election," says LDP member and Labor Minister Masakuni Murakami.

Also on Sunday, local LDP candidates scored badly in a race for Tokyo's metropolitan assembly, a warning for the party in the July 18 vote. With the LDP in disfavor among voters, many candidates hid their LDP affiliation while stumping.

Even within the LDP, some 60 members have grouped themselves into a reformist "league" under former Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu that stands ready to collaborate with Shinseito after the elections.

All these maneuvers have left the political landscape as shaky as the ever-present earthquakes in Tokyo. Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, now seen as a lame duck, can make few promises when he meets leaders of the world's six other leading industrialized nations at the Group of Seven summit in Tokyo from July 7-9.

Yet despite the political shifts, few analysts expect major changes in foreign and trade policy even after the July 18 election.

Corruption within the LDP, not its policies, is at the root of public discontent. As a result, the newly formed opposition coalition is quickly taking on many of the LDP colors.

With little else to go on, "new" has become the necessary word in naming new parties.

Shinseito's nominal leader, former Finance Minister Tsutomu Hata, gave little substance last week in announcing his new party, which consists of 44 renegade LDP lawmakers. "We named the party Shinseito [Renaissance] because we were born to press forward with new power, new wind, a new voice...." Mr. Hata said. The coalition's single theme so far is the need for drastic political reforms.

The other LDP splinter group is Sakigake Party (Harbinger New Party). And last year, a former LDP member, Morihiro Hosokawa, started the Japan New Party. Both these parties are steering clear of the new coalition for two reasons. One, Shinseito's leaders are tainted by past LDP scandals. And two, the largest party within the coalition, the Socialists, has been too leftist for most Japanese to swallow.

Mr. Hosokawa says the five-party coalition has yet to clarify its platform. The coalition is trying to deflect this criticism

until the election, hoping voters angry at the LDP will overlook ideological differences.

"Who are you going to vote for if you want to see political reform?" says Yuichi Ichikawa, secretary general of the Clean Government Party, on the campaign stump for the coalition.

The Socialist Party is quickly backpedalling on some of its most cherished left-wing stances in order to keep the coalition from splitting and in hopes of sharing power. For decades, it was seen as the permanent opposition party. Party chairman Sadao Yamahana told the United States ambassador in Tokyo that there will be "no change regarding the highest importance we accord to Japan's relationship with the US."

Mr. Yamahana had headed up efforts since last year to overhaul the party's cold-war-era policies. The party ended its favoritism toward North Korea and may drop its opposition to the US-Japan Security Treaty. And it might finally recognize the very existence of Japan's military as legal under the so-called "peace" constitution.

But the biggest contradiction within the coalition is whether to change the constitution and allow a larger military role for Japan.

The real force in Shinseito, Ichiro Ozawa, has long sought to amend the Constitution to help turn Japan into a world power. The Socialists have long sought to protect the post-war charter from any change. If the Socialists are to survive the coalition, they may need to oust their most left-wing members.

The LDP has tried to highlight the coalition's ideological splits. Defense Minister Toshio Nakayama, for instance, warned that Japan's military commitments with the US might change if the Socialists are part of the next government. And Mr. Miyazawa asked: "If our policies are OK, then what's the purpose of having a [Socialist Party]? They might as well quit being Socialists. There's no need to have an election. We can just forget about the whole thing."

Whoever wins, one immediate change is a new openness in Japanese politics. Rather than the back-room deals so common under the old LDP, almost every politician has gone on television talk shows.

Another change is big businesses' hesitance to bankroll the LDP in the election. "It will be necessary for business circles to reconsider the way we donate funds to political parties," Masaru Hayami, head of the Japan Association of Corporate Executives told reporters. "We expect a change in politics."

Business donations to the LDP are expected to fall far short of the $150 million given in 1990.

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