Voters May Say Sayonara to Socialists

Article excerpt

In the wake of the Cold War, Japan's Socialists have abandoned everything for which they've traditionally stood in exchange for what may be a fleeting taste of power.

Provided it stays together, the Social Democratic Party, led by Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, controls a large-enough block of votes to make or break any government. But the improbable partnership Murayama formed with the right-wing Liberal Democratic Party this summer makes about as much sense as a Republican and a Democrat running on the same ticket in the next U.S. presidential election.

"What exists now is a jumble of leftists, rightists, conservatives and liberals, all jockeying for position," says John Neuffer, a political analyst at Mitsui Marine Research Institute, a Tokyo policy group.

After winning the top slot in June, Murayama ushered in a brief period of stability in a nation that changed prime ministers four times during the previous year. But the conciliatory 70-year-old politician is appearing increasingly vulnerable. Dissidents in his own party, angered after months of ideological backsliding, are threatening to bolt and add yet another group to the dozen or so political parties vying for power. The dissidents, led by former party chairman Sadao Yamahana, recently established a group of about 40 lawmakers who oppose any move to merge with the Liberal Democrats.

The other big challenge to Murayama's government comes from a bloc of parties known as Kaikaku. The group, which includes former prime ministers Morihoro Hosokawa and Tsutomu Hata, plans to merge into a single super-opposition party before the end of the year. If the plan works, Japan would get its first real taste of two-party politics, not unlike the Democrats and Republicans in the United States.

"If the Kaikaku is successful, people will have to jump on that bandwagon or else stay with the Liberal Democrats, because no one can afford to stick out as a small, insignificant party," says Neuffer. "The reason is money."

Later this month, lawmakers are expected to pass an electoral reform law that will fund political contests with taxpayer money instead of private cash contributions. The question is, where would that leave the Socialists?

To become prime minister, Murayama sacrificed four decades of his party's left-wing dogma. …