Japan gets first Socialist PM in 46 years

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The Independent Online
JAPAN'S parliament yesterday elected Tomiichi Murayama as the first Socialist Prime Minister since 1948. The left-leaning chairman of the Socialist Party took office as the fourth prime minister in 12 months thanks to a bizarre alliance of former enemies - the Socialists and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

Business leaders reacted with dismay, and ordinary citizens with incredulity, that the 70-year-old Socialist had been appointed head of the government, and few expected his administration to stay in power for long. Already there were signs that the LDP and the Socialist Party were each facing a series of defections.

After the vote, in which Mr Murayama beat the former prime minister Toshiki Kaifu by 261 votes to 214, the Socialists and the LDP tried to gloss over the fact that for 38 years they had been bitter opponents in the Diet (parliament). In a meeting with Yohei Kono, the LDP president, Mr Murayama said he was moved by the 'earnest appeals' from the LDP members who urged him to run for the prime ministership. Mr Kono pledged his party's full support for the Prime Minister as a 'constant sincere partner'.

But even from within the LDP and the Socialists came squeals of protest against the coalition, which has few policies in common beyond the desire to halt the political-reform movement that began with the ousting of the LDP last year. Mr Murayama has spoken out in support of North Korea, opposes the Japan-US security pact, maintains the existence of the Japanese armed forces is unconstitutional, and does not want Japan to get a permanent seat on the UN Security Council: in each case flying directly in the face of LDP policy.

The vote came after the resignation last weekend of Tsutomu Hata, the reformist prime minister, who was facing a no-confidence motion in the Diet.

The Socialists found themselves holding the swing-vote in the parliament, and they exploited their position to the full to demand the premiership.

'This collusion is the last struggle of two parties trying to stick to their log-rolling politics that have dominated Japan since 1955,' said Morihiro Hosokawa, a former prime minister and ally of Mr Hata.

But as the parliamentary manoeuvres were played out it became clear that a more fundamental shift was occurring that, ironically, would eventually favour the reformers.

The right wing of the Socialist Party, along with some reformist members of the LDP, defected to vote against Mr Murayama as Prime Minister, continuing a process of political realignment that started when Mr Hata defected with 35 LDP members last June to set up a new opposition party.

If, as expected, Mr Murayama's coalition with the LDP is short- lived, and new elections are called, the reform-minded parties will be in an even stronger position than they were for last July's elections. By contrast, an LDP-Socialist coalition will hold virtually no credibility for ordinary voters.

Mr Murayama has had no previous ministerial experience. The son of a fisherman from the prefecture of Oita, on the southern island of Kyushu, he has been in the Diet since 1972, and served previously as a member of the Oita prefectural assembly.

The Japanese yen rose sharply against the dollar after Mr Murayama's appointment was announced: dealers expect the Socialist-LDP coalition will be unable to reach any agreement on how to deal with Japan's trade surplus, therefore keeping the yen high.

(Photograph omitted)