Japan's Socialists Seek More Flexible Image

POPULAR opposition leader Takako Doi opens a convention today of her Japan Socialist Party to decide whether it will continue to act as a spoiler in parliament, or prepare itself to take power. The choice is a tough one for the JSP, and may affect Japan's troubled ties to the world. The party has become accustomed to being in almost perpetual opposition after 35 years of dominance by the governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). It takes pride that the LDP passed many of its reformist ideals, if only to co-opt the JSP.

But last July, the party ended the LDP's monopoly on power by leading the opposition to win the upper house, a result of LDP plunders and Doi's popularity. Then, in February, the JSP made a respectable gain in the more important lower house, taking more than one-quarter of the seats, but failing to fully capitalize on its earlier victory.

The Feb. 18 election was only a ``half victory,'' says Ms. Doi, in part because of internal JSP squabbles and a popular perception that the party cannot be trusted to govern Japan.

An attempt by the JSP to forge a coalition in the upper house with three centrist opposition parties collapsed last week.

Without a coalition, the Socialists will use this three-day convention to do a little political housecleaning, says Rikyu Shibusawa, deputy secretary general of the party.

Heading the agenda is how much to compromise with the LDP on passing bills through the upper house. Japan is not accustomed to a divided Diet (parliament). Being obstructionist would perpetuate the JSP's image as a party unable to rule.

One JSP faction is willing to compromise with the LDP. This faction has maneuvered to elect a new vice chairman, Makoto Tanabe, the former party secretary general with close ties to the LDP. Opposing him is Tsuruo Yamaguchi, the present secretary general.

``The point is whether we can be flexible,'' Mr. Tanabe says. ``And what's important for Japan is that we cooperate [with the LDP]. But any negotiations will still be a political tug of war.''

The first critical standoff in the Diet will be JSP's attempt to abolish a 3 percent sales tax. The second convention item is putting the final stamp on the party's moves to drop its goal of a ``socialist revolution'' for Japan, and to settle for a West European-style ``social democracy'' with a mixed economy.

The JSP's leftist faction, while not opposing these simple word changes, has held fast, however, to opposing any further watering down of the party's opposition to American troops in Japan and its pro-North Korean policies. Those policies helped prevent the formation of a coalition, and irked many voters.

``A lot of people have been blinded by the glow of Takako Doi,'' says Columbia University scholar Gerald Curtis. ``It's very hard to see how the Socialist Party ... can unload all the historical baggage it has carried around all these years.''

The convention will also take steps to form a ``shadow cabinet,'' not so much to hound the LDP as to train the JSP for taking power.

Also to help its image, the JSP will likely send Doi on a trip to Washington later this year, where she can make clear her party's call for disarmament in Asia and disapproval of rice imports into Japan.

Her personal popularity, despite her leftist stands, has begun to be overshadowed by the rising popularity of Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu. Both leaders are boldly beginning to speak out on behalf of consumers, rather than producers.

``The Socialists will be tougher and still to the left as long as Doi remains popular,'' says Rei Shiratori, dean of political science and economics at Tokai University. ``But to keep its support, the party needs to show a mild face to the public. So nothing will really change.''

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