A new era is dawning in Japanese politics. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), after its smashing election victory this summer, is awaiting the emergence of an opposition party that can compete with it for the crucial middle ground.
This was the message that an ebullient Yasuhiro Nakasone delivered this weekend at this plush mountain resort 100 miles from Tokyo. Speaking to some 200 soberly suited business executives who had paid about $1,300 each to attend a two-day LDP seminar, the Japanese prime minister defined his party as ``the party of healthy nationalism,'' espousing ``liberalism, democracy, a free-market economy, partnership with the US, a moderate defense capacity, and aid to the developing nations.''
As Mr. Nakasone spoke, the Socialists -- the largest opposition party -- were holding an election campaign for the chairmanship of their party. Masashi Ishibashi, the current chairman, has taken responsibility for his party's defeat in the July general election and has resigned. Some 85,000 party members will vote Sept. 4 and 5 to choose his successor.
There are two candidates -- Miss Takako Doi and Tetsu Doi. If Miss Doi -- heavily favored over her rival -- does win, she will be the first woman to head a major party in this male-dominated country.
The Socialists figure into Nakasone's ``new era'' because he recognizes the need for a healthy opposition. The Liberal Democrats have been in power almost all the 41 years since World War II, and the opposition has been increasingly splintered. The real contest between the LDP and the opposition takes place, in Nakasone's view, in the so-called ``gray zone'' between rock-solid LDP supporters and equally unshakable adherents of the opposition. He figures that about 40 percent of the total electorate is in the gray zone.
Nakasone seems intent on broadening his appeal to the gray-zone voters who occupy the middle ground between ideological right and left. He seems to want to shed the image of nationalistic right-winger long attached to him by the local news media.
In Nakasone's view, the LDP got its landslide by capturing 60 percent of the gray-zone vote. The Socialists, he reasons, slipped badly because they were stuck in their outdated leftist mindset, despite Mr. Ishibashi's valiant efforts to nudge his party towards the center.
Smaller opposition parties lack the strength to field candidates nationwide.
If only the Socialists would wake up and realize where the real battlefield is, Nakasone implied, they would be a much more formidable opponent -- because the LDP would have to fight to keep the middle ground it occupied in the July election. Whatever happens to the Socialists, in Nakasone's view, it is essential that the LDP continues to hold the middle ground.
In speaking of a ``healthy nationalism,'' Nakasone said he did not mean a new exaltation of the state but a sense of community arising from shared dreams, worries, and sorrows. Nakasone has not changed his hawkish views on defense, and Japan will almost certainly decide to take part in President Reagan's space-based Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). The decision is expected to be announced next week.
In public, though, he lays much more stress on solving ``human frontier'' problems (such as the fight against cancer and the effort to build a ``thinking computer'') than he does on scrambling planes or defending sea lanes. Nakasone told his audience that Japan should appeal to the global community to participate in a ``human frontier program.''
The prime minister looked bronzed and relaxed, having come to the meeting from a round of golf. Nakasone has spent much of August at his villa in this popular resort area.
Now it is September, and problems are piling up on both the domestic and foreign fronts.
The Diet (parliament) will be resuming soon. US irritation with Japan increases as the US trade deficit swells to unprecedented figures, despite the dollar's steep fall.
At home, Nakasone's potential successors have agreed to extend his term beyond Oct. 31, when it expires. But there is as yet no consensus on how long the prime minister should be allowed to serve.