Big parties threatened by splits: Arguments rage over leaders and policies in the aftermath of Japan's elections

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THE Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the Socialists are still the two largest parties in Japan after Sunday's elections, but they are both behaving as if the world were about to end. The two parties' leaders are under pressure to resign, and forces within each party threaten to split them apart in the brave new world of Japanese politics.

The LDP, which lost its overall majority for the first time in four decades, is squabbling openly about its leadership as the Prime Minister, Kiichi Miyazawa, refuses to quit. Yesterday the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications, Junichiro Koizumi, who has been critical of Mr Miyazawa, announced he was resigning and invited his boss to do likewise. Mr Miyazawa said he would 'solemnly accept' Mr Koizumi's criticism - but he is still in the job.

Meanwhile, the Socialists, who dropped from 134 to 70 seats in a humiliating defeat, are asking themselves whether the party in its current form has any future. On Sunday night the party leader, Sadao Yamahana, was visibly sinking lower and lower in his chair as he watched his candidates all around the country dropping off the electoral register like lemmings over a cliff. 'It is a very severe election,' he kept saying.

For the LDP elders, the main problem is how to attract potential coalition partners to form the next government without making too large a commitment in the area of political reform, which scares the traditional element within the party. But a group of younger LDP members are demanding substantial progress in reforming the electoral system, and could even leave the party if they believe that the party leaders will continue to fudge the reform issue. Mr Miyazawa is in fact widely expected to resign: that he has not done so yet indicates the rift within the party over a successor and the strategy the party should take in the reform debate.

There is an even deeper policy rift within the Socialists, who are now at their lowest level in the Diet (parliament) since the party was founded in 1945. Reformers have been urging the party to ditch its outdated Marxist-Leninist line, which they say threatens to make the party irrelevant in the modern world. For years the party adopted a pro-Soviet, pro-North Korean stance, opposed the existence of the Japanese military and the security treaty with the US, and generally adopted policies on the basis that they were an exact mirror image of what the conservative, pro-business LDP stood for.

Some of their supporters were hardcore socialists, but most voted for the party by way of a protest against the LDP's power monopoly. They were in government for one year, 1947-48, but after the LDP was formed out of two conservative parties in 1955 and the Cold War intensified, few viewed the Socialists as serious contenders for power.

This political structure, in which the opposition was not electable and the LDP was returned to power regardless, ended with the LDP split and the defection of Ichiro Ozawa and his ally Tsutomu Hata to set up the Shinsei (Renewal) party last month. Three new conservative parties ran in the elections, and suddenly voters tired of the LDP had a real alternative.

For the Socialists this was a disaster. In streetwise Tokyo they plunged from 12 seats to 1, as the 'new party' fad caught on among young voters. Even the age profiles of the different parties indicate a dismal future for the Socialists: the average age of their representatives is 58, compared to 41 for the Japan New Party. Last night Mr Yamahana, still at the helm of the Socialists, was, in the Japanese expression, 'reflecting deeply' on his party's misfortunes.

(Photograph omitted)