YESTERDAY an incongruous pact between two Japanese political parties that opposed each other for almost four decades produced the country's first Socialist prime minister since 1948. The election of Tomiichi Murayama as Japan's premier is yet another indication of the tumultuous changes now underway in Japan's political life.
The dominant reaction in Tokyo was shock. Of all odd alliances that have prefaced the selection of Japan's postwar prime ministers, says Yukio Matsuyama, a longtime political journalist here, ``this is the most unthinkable.''
After a two-round, nail-biting election in the lower house of parliament - a chamber where voting has until recently been a mere act of rubber-stamping - Mr. Murayama managed to best a candidate put forward by the coalition of parties that have held power here since last summer.
Murayama, the head of the Social Democratic Party of Japan, was the candidate of the largest party in the house, the Liberal Democratic Party. The LDP ruled for 38 years until being ousted by voters last summer. During those years, LDP leaders worked tirelessly to preserve party unity in order to keep the Socialists out of power.
Yesterday, the conservative, pro-business politicians of the LDP supported Murayama in a decision so controversial that two former LDP prime ministers, Toshiki Kaifu and Yasuhiro Nakasone, said before the voting they would not go along. Mr. Kaifu said he would oppose Murayama as the candidate of the ruling coalition that was led by former Prime Minister Tsutomu Hata until Saturday.
Murayama's election suggested that the process of political reform here would at least change course and might be derailed altogether. The coalition ousted yesterday is midway through remaking Japan's electoral system. The planned introduction of single-seat districts was intended to give politicians clearer mandates and more power to rule the country's bureaucracy. But many Socialists and LDP members have opposed the redistricting, in part because they are the ones likely to lose their seats.
The odd marriage of the LDP and the Socialists was in many ways a reaction to the key coalition strategist, Ichiro Ozawa, who, since defecting from the LDP last summer, has articulated a vision of a more aggressive and influential Japan.
But these ideas have put off many LDP and Socialist politicians, who favor Japan's pacifist postwar philosophy, which has allowed the country to build the world's second-largest economy without worrying too much about international security. Mr. Ozawa's defection also rankled many LDP members, who think he is determined to destroy their party, and he routinely fought with Socialists when they were part of the coalition government.
``The Socialists and the LDP cooperated only because they share antipathy and rancor against Ozawa,'' Mr. Matsuyama says. ``That's the most important factor which produced the Socialist prime minister.'' The new alliance's feelings for Ozawa may be the only thing they have in common. Although there is some shared respect in the two parties for Japan's ``peace Constitution,'' the two groups also disagree on other aspects of Japan's security policy and on tax reform, an increasingly pressing issue.
It was too soon to tell how the LDP-Socialist link would affect the process of political realignment afoot here.
Since last summer, when the LDP's tight grip on power was broken, politicians have flirted with a major realignment. Analysts have envisioned a new era for Japan, with leaders forming two or three major new parties on the basis of shared policies. The LDP and the Socialists have been famous for smoothing over their internal differences in order to oppose each other. Some of yesterday's developments seemed to further realignment. Kaifu's decision to buck the LDP indicated that conservative politicians who favor a more aggressive international role for Japan may continue to coalesce.
Potential disagreements that threaten to rupture an LDP-Socialist Cabinet also prompted analysts to call for the dissolution of parliament and new elections. Rei Shiratori, a political science professor at Tokai University, said an election was necessary for voters to evaluate the work of the coalition that was just displaced.
Brought to power after a surge of voter disgust at the ``money politics'' of the LDP era, the coalition included the Socialists and LDP defectors. It was initially headed by Morihiro Hosokowa, Japan's Clintonesque reformer. He was forced to resign in April amid a financial scandal, and was followed by Mr. Hata. But the Socialists left the coalition after a political dispute, leaving Hata with a shaky minority government that fell apart last week.