LDP rule set to end in Japan

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THE end seemed nigh for the Liberal Democratic Party's 38-year hold on power in Japan after two centre-right parties said yesterday they would not work with the LDP, and agreed to join a 'summit' of all seven non-Communist opposition party leaders today.

The decision by the Japan New Party and the Sakigake (Harbinger) Party to come off the fence brought fresh intensity to opposition efforts to form a common platform - no easy task, given that the coalition ranges from former LDP fixers such as Ichiro Ozawa to left-wing hardliners in the Socialist Party - still the largest opposition group despite losing nearly half its seats. The Socialist secretary-general, Hirotaka Akamatsu, claimed yesterday that the seven parties were in agreement 'in terms of basic policies'.

But apart from a commitment to political and electoral reform, the issues which split the LDP and precipitated the 18 July election, little else appears to have been resolved. 'It will be the first change of government in 38 years, so we are proceeding very cautiously,' said Mr Akamatsu. Party spokesmen said work would continue all night if necessary so that a set of policies could be announced today.

Another matter which remains unclear is the identity of the opposition's candidate for prime minister. Hajime Ishii of the Shinsei (Renewal) Party said the question had not been discussed so far, but the favourite remains Morihiro Hosokawa, head of the Japan New Party, which broke away from the LDP last year. The chances of Mr Ishii's party leader, Tsutomu Hata, appear to have faded because he is seen as a front man for the scandal-ridden Mr Ozawa, who is regarded with suspicion by many of his new colleagues.

Many are sceptical of the coalition's ability to hold together for long. The LDP remains by far the largest party in the Diet, and the non-Communist opposition will require every vote to keep it from power. The waning authority of the governing party was emphasised, however, by the defection of three more MPs yesterday. They included Mutsuki Kato, former chairman of the party's policy affairs research council, and Akira Fukuda, a former home affairs minister, who announced that they would support the opposition's candidate for prime minister.