'The matter puts the party at the brink of life or death,' said the Socialists' leader, Sadao Yamahana, last week, after party leaders studied an election analysis which showed the Socialists could lose nearly 50 per cent of their seats in this weekend's general elections. The party held 137 seats when the Diet (parliament) was dissolved last month, and opinion polls show that it could drop to 80 seats or fewer, as voters seek out alternative opposition parties.
The reason for the Socialists' decline goes to the heart of their raison d'etre since 1955: they have functioned as a bulwark against the excesses of the LDP, ready to boycott parliament if the government appeared to be abusing its monopoly on power too much. But neither the voters nor the Socialist MPs ever thought their party could form a government: usually it did not even field enough candidates to win a Diet majority.
The party could therefore happily air the most idiosyncratic Marxist-Leninist policies without compromising its position. The Socialists officially support North Korea against the South, call for nuclear power plants to be closed and for Japan's security alliance with the US to be terminated. Left-wing hardliners, to the satisfaction of the LDP, control key policy committees, and have consistently prevented more pragmatic members from changing the Socialists' basic policies so that they could be more acceptable to mainstream Japanese voters.
Even the party's name was hotly disputed: an attempt to update the party's image by dropping 'socialist' in favour of 'social democrat' in 1991 was resisted by the hardliners. The final cosmetic compromise was a change in the English name to 'Social Democratic Party', which no-one uses inside Japan, while retaining the old name of Shakai-to (literally socialist party) in Japanese.
But when Tsutomu Hata and 43 other MPs quit the LDP to form the opposition Shinsei party last month, and began casting around for potential partners in an anti-LDP coalition, the Socialists were stuck between a rock and a hard place. If they refused a coalition they would be handing power back to the LDP. But if they accepted a coalition it would mean retracting many of their more left-wing policies to fit in with Mr Hata's conservative agenda.
The Socialists' first inclination was none the less to jump into bed with the Shinsei party, and Mr Yamahana said he would even support Mr Hata as prime minister. But then the party realised its error: in metropolitan elections in Tokyo on 27 June, it lost more than half its seats, as voters revolted against the sudden switch in policies and its apparent short-term opportunism. The next day Mr Yamahana began backing away from his new friend, Mr Hata.
Perhaps the single issue that most separates the Socialists' traditional supporters from the new conservative party of Mr Hata is the country's constitution. The Socialists have consistently fought any moves by the LDP to change the country's pacifist constitution, particularly Article 9, which renounces the use of force as a way of settling international disputes.
'I have supported the Socialists for this reason only,' said Miyokichi Sakai, a retired teacher from Niigata. 'We must protect the constitution. If it is changed, Japan will start sending troops overseas and then Japanese militarism will be revived.'
But it is this kind of pacifism that Mr Hata and Ichiro Ozawa, the main force behind the Shinsei party, want to confront. Mr Ozawa was the architect of a law last year which allowed Japanese troops to take part in UN peace- keeping in Cambodia. He has consistently argued that Japan must play a larger role in regional security, and can no longer just supply money when other nations are risking the lives of their troops.
For now the Socialists are prevaricating on their strategy, calling for the LDP to be ousted without saying who should replace them. But this only further alienates the voters. It is almost as if the party, which worked so hard to remain the major opposition party for so long, is deliberately planning its own demise.Reuse content