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Murayama's bright socialist image loses its shine

It should have been the fulfilment of a political dream. At the rally in Tokyo's Yoyogi Park yesterday, the grey-haired Socialist Prime Minister, Tomiichi Murayama, addressed the crowd at Japan's 66th May Day celebrations. Over 200,000 people gathered to hear him, the first left-wing premier in 47 years, and the only one ever to attend a Labour Day rally.

But this bright vision of a Socialist prime minister at a workers' parade was, like so much in Japanese politics, a mirage. All Mr Murayama's grandfatherly smiles could not conceal the fact that he is a leader without friends, without policies, with barely a party to call his own.

It is not as if anyone ever had high hopes of Mr Murayama. His government was always a political chimera, the product of an unnatural alliance between his own Social Democratic Party (SDP) and its enemy of half a century, the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

For the LDP, which in 1993 lost its 38-year majority to a coalition of the SDP and smaller reform groups, the premiership was the bait necessary to make the socialist leader switch sides, and claw back its own power. For Mr Murayama, an old-style left-winger with a record of anti-Americanism and support for Stalinist North Korea, it was an unblushing bid for office, at the cost of all the SDP's key policies.

From the beginning, no one doubted that it was the LDP that called the shots, and that its ambition was to co-opt the SDP and deprive it of its raison d'tre.

But the degree of Mr Murayama's ineptitude has shocked everyone. It has even begun to threaten the very LDP godfathers who manoeuvred him into power.

The government's fumbling response to the Kobe earthquake is widely believed to have cost lives: the Prime Minister only got round to visiting the stricken city when it seemed as if the Princess of Wales might get there first. Three-and-a-half months later, 50,000 people are still homeless.

The soaring yen, chronic trade surplus, falling stock market and recent terrorist attacks have been met with similar muddle and inaction. Japan's stubborn and independent-minded bureaucrats make the job of imposing policy a tough for one for any leader: according to insiders, Mr Murayama has not even tried. Even the last remnant of his pacifist socialism - a formal renunciation of Japanese aggression which he was due to present on an official visit to China this week - has been in effect shot down by right- wingers in the LDP.

The demise of Mr Murayama and even the dissolution of his party are now considered inevitable, rather than merely likely. In the July elections for the Upper House of the Diet, the SDP is expected to suffer heavy losses. As party leader, Mr Murayama will "take responsibility" by resigning, leaving his Social Democrat colleagues more dependent than ever on their LDP coalition partners. The SDP is already planning to abolish and reinvent itself; characteristically, even this decision has been dogged with disagreements and postponements.

More interesting is the effect that the Murayama dbcle might have on the conservatives. At one time, LDP heavyweights such as the present Foreign Minister, Yohei Kono, were the natural candidates to succeed to the premiership. But they too have been soiled by the recent fiascos, and a younger generation of LDP politicians - such as the coalition go-between, Koichi Kato - appear to be jostling for position.

If no one is prepared to take the poisoned chalice, then there is even a third possibility: that grandpa Murayama will survive, and smile all the way to a second term.