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What Kind of Change Will Japan's Conservatives Bring?

By Leslie Helm
Los Angeles Times

TOKYO

Voters here brought an end to Japan's own little "cold war'' Sunday when they gave a thumbs-down to the left-leaning Socialists and shifted their support to three new conservative opposition parties.

The other cold war camp, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, was also punished: It failed to regain the majority position it lost when a splinter group joined the opposition in a no-confidence vote last month. That setback forced last weekend's election for the lower house of Parliament, which elects the prime minister.

But can Japan's new conservatives unite and forge an alliance with the old-line opposition to form a new government in the coming month, before elections are held for a new prime minister? And if they do, what kind of change will the new government bring?

The verdict is mixed as Japan digests the election results.

"The change (in voter support) was big enough to destabilize the LDP but not big enough to create an alternative government,'' said Kuniko Inoguchi, a political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo.

For the longer term, however, observers said the emergence of a conservative alternative to the ruling party vastly increases the chance that a non-LDP government could come to power, with a platform for at least moderate change.

For decades, the Socialist party has served as the vehicle for protest votes against the ruling party. When the LDP instituted a consumption tax three years ago, for example, voters supported the Socialists in large numbers.

But few Japanese have ever seriously considered a Socialist-controlled government. And the Socialists have remained a largely symbolic opposition by advocating extreme, impractical policies while often cooperating closely with the ruling party behind closed doors. Fistfights in Parliament were sometimes staged as a show of force by the opposition against an unpopular bill -- even though the Socialists had already made back-room deals agreeing to the policy.

Such Kabuki-style drama may no longer be necessary. The new conservative opposition parties are openly seeking power. And on most policies, they have few differences with the ruling party.

The result will be a new political structure dominated by conservatives. "You will have the LDP and an equally conservative opposition,'' says Masao Kunihiro, a Socialist member of the upper house. "We (in the left wing) will be pushed out.''

What is still unclear is whether the new conservatives, most of whom are former members of the LDP, are different enough from the ruling party to promote real change.

Some analysts argue that competition for power will eventually force the new groups to differentiate themselves by becoming more pro-consumer, in contrast to the pro-producer, pro-farmer policies of the LDP.

Others warn against expecting too much change in this area. "There is no great cleavage between the LDP and the opposition on this issue,'' says Gerald Curtis, a political scientist at Columbia University.

The new conservatives talk of decentralizing government, rooting out corruption and taking a more assertive foreign policy position. But few talk of promoting the more fundamental shift in economic policy from growth to quality-of-life issues that economists believe is necessary if Japan is to cut its trade surplus.

And the success of the new conservatives has been welcomed by business interests, who expect the new parties to be sympathetic to their concerns. "I welcome the increase in the strength of the conservative forces as a whole,'' said Gaishi Hiraiwa, chairman of the Keidanren, Japan's big business association.

"The historical mission of economic development is finished, yet the conservative parties keep pushing economic growth rather than developing proper welfare services,'' says Inoguchi of Sophia University. "People don't have babies because of the lack of social services. All these problems aren't being dealt with.'' Inoguchi argues that such needs create the potential for a Socialist revival.

A major reason for the fall of the Socialists was the loss of unqualified support from the Japan Trade Union Confederation, which represents the largest group of Japanese unions. "The Socialist party will have little impact on Japanese politics in the future,'' Akira Yamagishi, president of the Confederation, said Monday.