Japan's No. 2 party seeks broader base

``We are the party for peace, human rights, and women.'' Wherever she goes, Takako Doi, chairman of the Japan Socialist Party, tries to project the image of a party reborn, finished with squabbles over Marxist orthodoxy, at home with the general public.

That was what she tried to do at the Socialists' annual convention in Tokyo last week. She was only partially successful.

Since becoming chairman 17 months ago, Miss Doi has been enormously popular with women and with many voters tired of the 40-year domination of the government by the conservative Liberal Democrats. But there is wide agreement among political analysts that for all Doi's efforts, her party still lacks credibility as a viable alternative to the Liberal Democrats - alone or in a coalition.

Japan is sometimes called a ``one-party democracy'' - meaning that it is a democracy but with one party perennially in power. This is not considered a healthy situation for democracy, and Doi is doing her best to change it. It does not seem to be the voters, but elements in her own party which get in her way.

Last week's convention was a good example. The party finally managed to get rid of ``democratic centralism'' from its by-laws, replacing the term with ``unity based on agreement.'' It also created a new category of member - cooperative (or associate) member - who will pay only 500 yen ($3.80) dues per month and who will have the right to elect the party chairman.

These changes, they hope, will make the Socialists more attractive to environmental and other citizens movements. Both actions were resisted bitterly by the party's Marxist left wing.

As the liberal daily Asahi complained in an editorial, the convention hardly took up any of the issues of real concern to voters, such as the steep rise in land prices, or what to do about agricultural subsidies, or health and welfare, or US-Soviet detente. ``Aren't the Socialist Party's perceptions out of focus?'' the paper asked.

``We seem to be so comfortable being No. 2 rather than No. 1,'' said one of Doi's advisers, a left-winger. ``We would rather be ideologically pure and remain in opposition, than making the compromises that are necessary to come to power.''

Socialism in Japan has a history that goes back to the early 1900s. When Japan turned militarist, many Socialists were jailed, while others apostatized. Revived after World War II, the party became the leading opposition group and managed to head a coalition government for a brief period 1947-48. Ever since, it has been in the political wilderness.

In the last general election, in July 1986, the Liberal Democrats won 304 seats in the 512-seat House of Representatives. The Socialists took just 86. Doi's election as Socialist chairman two months after the defeat was a measure of the concern party executives felt that a spectacular move was needed to stave off political extinction.

In media terms and in popularity with so-called citizens' groups, Doi has been successful. But she has not managed to translate her own popularity into increased support for the party. Party membership has actually decreased slightly during the past year - to less than 80,000.

The Japanese Socialists uphold Japan's ``peace Constitution'' which bans the right to go to war or to have armed forces. Doi, a constitutional scholar, energetically champions this stance. Her party espouses unarmed neutrality and wants to do away with the US-Japan security treaty and with Japan's own Self-Defense Forces - ``ultimately.''

But, if the party comes to power, they say they will tolerate both the Self-Defense Forces and US bases here ``until conditions are ripe'' for the transition to unarmed neutrality. This is a somewhat more realistic posture than before - but not enough to change voter patterns significantly. Political analysts here agree that to make a major impact on the electorate, far more fundamental changes are required.

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