Japanese LDP plots its return to power

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The Independent Online
When the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was voted out of power in 1993, its leading opponent, Morihiro Hosokawa, described the moment as being "like the fall of Japan's Berlin Wall". Yesterday the LDP's present leader, the Prime Minister, Ryutaro Hashimoto, was hard at work building the wall again.

The LDP failed to win a simple majority in general elections on Sunday but with 239 of the 500 seats in the Lower House of the Diet, it finds itself in an excellent position to dominate the next government and reclaim the power which, until the 1993 election, it had maintained for an unbroken 38 years. Within hours of the final results, Japan's political leaders began the delicate talks which will determine the shape of the new government.

The past two weeks have shown up Japanese politicians as uneasy election campaigners, frequently at sea in the realm of grown-up political ideas. But as back-room negotiators and horse-traders they are world- class, and few are more skilled than Mr Hashimoto. Apart from the small but stalwart Communists, the conservative LDP was the only party to increase its representation in the Diet and Mr Hashimoto is certain to remain prime minister. The question is how he will make up his majority without compromising his power to the demands of other parties.

In the short term, he is likely to continue his coalition with the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the small Sakigake (Harbinger Party) which has ruled since 1994. For 40 years the SDP was the LDP's bitter antagonist but it jettisoned virtually all its left-wing policies on joining the government. On Sunday, it was rewarded for its fickleness by losing half its 30 Diet members.

Its leader, Takako Doi, hinted yesterday that while she will not accept any places in an LDP-dominated cabinet, she may be prepared to vote with the conservatives, an arrangement that will eminently suit Mr Hashimoto.

But the LDP's most important long-term task will be to attract defectors from the main opposition group, Shinshinto (New Frontier Party), which may turn out to be the biggest casualty of the election.

Shinshinto was formed in 1994 under the leadership of Ichiro Ozawa, the intellectual mastermind of the movement to depose the LDP to which, like many of his party colleagues, he formerly belonged.

In Sunday's election Shinshinto won 156 seats, only slightly less than its former representation, but too little to give it a serious chance of forming a government.

Japanese newspapers yesterday reported that 10 right-wingers in Shinshinto are preparing to defect, a trickle which could eventually turn into a torrent.

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