Japan's New Coalition Has Experts' Backing, If Not the Public's

Some see Murayama's ascent as a post-cold-war phenomenon

JAPAN'S new administration - decried last week as the product of a cynical marriage of convenience between two rival political parties that was destined to crumble fast - is looking more logical and more durable, at least in the view of some political analysts here.

The public, however, does not share that view.

Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama awoke yesterday to published polls showing a 35 percent approval rating for his administration, a low score even by Japanese standards. With the notable exception of former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa's election last August -

which generated an approval rating of 71 percent - Japanese usually greet their new leaders with resignation that is only slightly tempered by a generic sense of optimism about the future.

In a poll conducted by the Asahi newspaper over the weekend, 56 percent of the 1,180 respondents said they had no ``policy expectations'' of the Murayama Cabinet. Sixty-two percent said they did not think the government would last a year.

Part of the skepticism is no doubt due to the lingering shock of Mr. Murayama's arrival in office. A year ago he was an obscure, grandfatherly Socialist with no particular clout.

He has since emerged as a compromise leader within his party, the Social Democratic Party of Japan. But most surprising is that he has become Japan's leader through the backing of his party's longtime political enemy, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). His election by parliament on June 29 was so disconcerting that one newspaper ran a headline the next day that said simply, ``Murayama, who?''

The largest component of Murayama's coalition is Japan's venerable LDP, which kept Japan safe for big business by keeping the Socialists at bay for almost four decades. The LDP was turned out of power by Mr. Hosokawa and other reformers last July, but is now back in force, controlling 13 of the 20 Cabinet posts. The LDP's leader, Yohei Kono, was named deputy prime minister and foreign minister last week.

Now that the dismay is subsiding, some observers are starting to say that the Socialists and the LDP, along with a minor LDP splinter group that rounds out the coalition, may be able to work out their differences.

In terms of domestic and economic policy, says Yoichi Masuzoe, a former international politics professor at Tokyo University, the groups in the new coalition do not suffer from insurmountable ``policy distance.''

If, however, the nuclear standoff on the Korean Peninsula were to flare up, the coalition would likely fracture, he says. ``One of the key persons who made this coalition possible is former President Jimmy Carter,'' he adds, because Mr. Carter's trip to the two Koreas had eased tensions so dramatically.

Murayama did much to soften the tone of analysts' criticism by immediately promising that his government would enact the electoral reform laws passed under Hosokawa's administration. Many observers here have worried quite loudly that the Socialists and the LDP, because they are thought to have a lot to lose if Japan's electoral system is changed as planned, will conspire to undermine the reforms.

Kuniko Inoguchi, who teaches political science at Tokyo's Sophia University, says that the current coalition is a ``strange alliance - but strange to amateurs' eyes.''

The LDP/Socialist link should be seen as a function of the post-cold-war shake-up now underway in Japanese politics, she says. Although the parties have many disagreements, they also have many members who can unite in their opposition to a vision of ``new Japan'' - which would take a more assertive role on the international stage - that is articulated by some leaders here. Professor Inoguchi says a more moderate and dovish LDP line is emerging, one that many Socialists are comfortable with. ``This is not the dismantling of the LDP,'' she adds, ``it's the process of the LDP adjusting to a post-cold-war softer line.''

Other political analysts do not see ideology as the key factor. On the contrary, says Takao Toshikawa, editor of a political newsletter called Tokyo Insideline, Murayama's election is the result of the LDP's determination to regain power. Nonetheless, he adds, noting that his view is not widely held, ``I dare say this Murayama administration will go well.'' Mr. Toshikawa won't say how long he thinks the government will survive, just that it will outlast many peoples' expectations.

But in his view, any longevity will spring from the experience and staying power of the LDP mandarins who are now back in various positions of power, many of them Cabinet-level.

The particularly unstable politics of the past three months has struck many people here as un-Japanese, especially with the economy poised so tentatively at the beginning of a hoped-for recovery. Observers here are forced to concede that many key players in the new coalition are political veterans who could provide stability.

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