Japanese opposition struggles to find its role

Disheartened by their crushing defeat in the June 22 election, Japan's opposition parties are in nearly total disarray. As their dream of coalition government recedes, the question is raised anew: How healthy is a democratic system in which one party is perennially in power?

While the victorious Liberal Democrats grapple with the problem of choosing a successor to the late Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira, the six opposition parties , large and small, are trying to pull themselves together and work out what their relationship will be with one another and with the ruling party.

The six parties are: the Socialists (107 seats in the 511-seat lower house), the Communists (29 seats), the Komeito (34 seats), the Democratic Socialists (33 seats), the New Liberal Club (12 seats), and the United Social Democrats (3 seats). The latter four are often grouped together as the moderate or middle- of-the-road parties.

Before the election the opposition had a total of 247 seats in the lower house compared to 257 for the Liberal Democrats. This gave the opposition the chairmanship of a number of key committees and the ability to force changes in the national budget. Today the opposition has only 218 seats compared to 286 for the Liberal Democrats. Furthermore, the opposition is not united.

The Communist are entirely isolated. They have ideological sympathizers among the Socialists. But in constituency after constituency Communists battled Socialists for the last seat in the nation's multiseat constituency system. Whatever new form of cooperation the opposition parties eventually work out, the Communists are likely to remain excluded.

The remaining five parties, ranging politically from socialist to conservative (the New Liberal Club), could conceivably form some kind of new partnership, however loose.

That is what chairman Ichio Asukata of the Socialist earnestly wants. He still thinks that the Socialists, Democratic Socialists, and Komeito could constitute the main elements of such a partnership. He wants the coalition because he recognizes that the Socialists are not likely to come power by themselves.

Most Socialists are content to criticize and to oppose rather than to act as an alternative government. Efforts have been made time and again to set up shadow portfolios as do British parties in opposition. They have never gotten very far.

One of the most unrealistic policies still formally espoused by the Socialists is that of unarmed neturality in a nuclear world. They have retreated implicitly from this stance without abandoning it altogether.

It forms one of the chief policy differences between the Socialists and the other opposition parties. The Democratic Socialists are almost more hawkish on defense than the Liberal Democrats, while the Komeito also affirms the importance of security links with the United States.

The Komeito is a unique party. In a generally secular country, it is the political arm of the iconoclastic Buddhist lay organization known as Soka Gakkai (the Value Creation Society). Although the Komeito has severed its formal links with the Soka Gakkai, it relies heavily on Soka Gakkai members as voters and grass-roots workers.

Last October, Communist and Komeito parties did well because bad weather kept many voters at home. This time, with voter interest high and sunshine generally prevailing, the Communists lost 12 seats, the Komeito 24.

The Democratic Socialists probably more closely resemble the Social Democrats of Western Europe than any of the other opposition parties. But in 22 years of existence they have failed to win the breakthrough vote that would transform them into a mass party.

For opposition politicians, the lesson seems to be that the Japanese Socialist Party still represents mainstream opposition.

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