Japan Politicians Polish Image Before They Take a Stand

LDP, Socialists rejig themselves before a vote

SOMETIME soon, in all likelihood within six months, the Japanese will hold a general election that will bring some long-awaited clarity to this country's slow political evolution.

For the time being, however, Japan's political players are preoccupied with fashioning alliances and remaking images in anticipation of putting themselves before an estranged and unpredictable electorate.

In a key step in this process, members of the Liberal Democratic Party on Friday chose Trade and Industry Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto as their leader.

With Mr. Hashimoto as LDP president, relations will become more complex within the ruling coalition. Considered more hawkish than the man he replaces, Foreign Minister Yohei Kono, Hashimoto reminds many Japanese of the old style of politics and appears unlikely to carry out the promises of reform that have animated political discussions here in recent years.

The LDP tried to style the election of its leader as a contest over issues, but the race struck many observers as a sham. After Mr. Kono announced he would drop out in early August, apparently because he felt Hashimoto would win, the party found a candidate to oppose Hashimoto. Junichiro Koizumi, a former Cabinet minister, gamely debated Hashimoto, but barely half of the party's rank-and-file members bothered to vote and Hashimoto won overwhelmingly.

The LDP is the dominant party of Japan's postwar era, which featured a power structure that boosted the fortunes of big business and LDP members and put power in the hands of bureaucrats.

For decades, the electorate endorsed this arrangement, but rising complaints about collusion and corruption brought change. Hurt by the defections of members who styled themselves as reformers and a loss of popular support, the LDP was deprived of its position as the dominant party in the powerful lower house of parliament in a general election held in July 1993. That election ended 38 years of LDP rule, and the country has yet to hold another one.

During the party's years of dominance, the election of the LDP president was in effect the selection of the prime minister. Hashimoto would like to return to the old way of doing business - he has not hid his desire to be premier.

Although the LDP is the biggest party in the lower house, it is now part of a coalition government, and Hashimoto must be content with his role as a Cabinet member in a government led by a Socialist.

If Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama's government were to collapse, Hashimoto would be in the position to try to form a new coalition, but many political leaders have said that an election cannot be put off much beyond next spring.

Hashimoto vows to revive the LDP and lead it to dominance again, but twice this year Japanese voters have shown they are unwilling to forgive the party for their past excesses.

In April elections for the governorships of Tokyo and Osaka, voters rejected establishment candidates backed by the LDP and other parties and elected independents. In upper house elections this July, the voters favored the New Frontier Party, a group led by the one-time LDP men who defected.

The Socialists, too, last week took a step to prepare for an election. They have had to abandon many long-held positions, especially after joining forces with the LDP, and their support has been dwindling. Consequently, party leaders last week announced the formation of a new party by the end of October. The change will be largely cosmetic - party leaders have yet to define a platform - but it is a last hope for politicians who have alienated their backers. Mr. Murayama used the occasion to dispel rumors of his resignation and said he would stay in office until March or April of next year.

The third major force in Japan's political world, the New Frontier Party, has been quiet amid all the maneuvering. In spite of its success in the Upper House races, it too is having difficulty coalescing around a set of issues that it can call its own.

What all these parties share is an uncertainty about their popular support, a state of affairs that has made politicians reluctant to take stands on issues. The only thing that will force them to do so, it seems, is an election.

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