WORLD

Voting against change

The ruling party wins a fight for survival

ANDREW BILSKI March 5 1990
WORLD

Voting against change

The ruling party wins a fight for survival

ANDREW BILSKI March 5 1990

Voting against change

WORLD

JAPAN

The ruling party wins a fight for survival

Before any major endeavor, Japanese custom calls for the coloring of a single eye of a Buddhist “daruma” doll with black paint. When the doll’s owner has successfully completed his task, he blackens its second eye. Last week, as votes were counted from the Feb. 18 elections to the lower house of parliament, Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu smiled with joy—and relief—as a throng of reporters watched him paint in the remaining eye of his giant doll. Kaifu was relieved because his Liberal Democratic Party had just won a fight for its political survival. Two prime ministers and several cabinet ministers had resigned in the past year over bribery and sex scandals. The LDP’s public appeal had plummeted to historic lows, and the leftist opposition had launched a serious challenge to the ruling party’s 35-year hold on power. Despite those obstacles, the LDP lost only 20 of its 295 seats, retaining a comfortable majority in the 512seat lower house. Said Tokyo political analyst Minoru Tada: “Most Japanese are conservatives in their day-to-day lives. We don’t want political changes.”

The voters’ choice of the familiar over the untested dashed opposition hopes of becoming part of a left-wing coalition government. Still, Takako Doi, the popular female leader of the largest opposition group, the Japan Socialist

Party (JSP), celebrated the winning of 136 seats, up from 83 seats in the last parliament. That strong finish, following the Socialists’ stunning victory last summer in elections to the parliament’s upper house, will make the JSP a formidable challenger to the political dominance that the LDP has enjoyed since 1955. But the election results indicated that most Japanese had chosen to overlook the influencepeddling scandal in which LDP politicians and bureaucrats profited from underpriced stocks sold by the Recruit publishing and real estate conglomerate. In fact, voters re-elected 11 of 13 candidates linked to the bribery scandal, including former prime ministers Yasuhiro Nakasone and Noboru Takeshita.

The LDP’s victory was at least a partial vindication of Kaifu, whom the beleaguered party turned to last August as a compromise choice because of what his colleagues called his “Mr. Clean” image. In a formality this week, Kaifu will be confirmed as LDP president and prime minister. But the length of his tenure may be decided by numerous looming issues. The most acute: increasing pressure from Washington for Japan to reduce its $58-billion annual trade surplus with the United States.

Following a delay for the voting, American and Japanese negotiators met in Tokyo last week for the third round of Structural Impedi-

ments Initiative (sn) talks. They are intended to reduce the bilateral trade imbalance by proposing fundamental changes to the two countries’ economies. The United States wants Japan, its second-largest trading partner after Canada, to open up to imports by streamlining its complex wholesale and retail distribution systems and by discouraging exclusionary business practices, which, Washington says, have led to the highest domestic consumer prices in the world. Japanese officials want the United States to become z more competitive by tackling I its $ 164-billion federal bud5 get deficit, excessive con| sumption and high cost of Ç capital. Although many U.S. officials admit that American economic policy is partly to blame for the bilateral trade imbalance, they continue to demand unilateral concessions from Japan.

As well, by mid-July, Japan has to settle disputes in three trade areas: supercomputers, satellites and forest products. Under the U.S. Omnibus Trade Act of 1988, Washington can retaliate against Tokyo as an “unfair trader” if the Japanese do not open their markets to those U.S. exports. The White House has also pressed Japan to open its rice markets to imports. That demand could prove difficult for the LDP, which promised Japanese farmers that it would oppose such imports.

Some experts say that relations between Japan and the United States are now at their most emotional since the Second World War. Although the LDP seems politically strong after last week’s elections, Gerald Curtis, director of the East Asian Institute at Columbia University in New York City, called the party “legislatively weak” because it will have to rely on the approval of the opposition-controlled upper house to pass major domestic legislation. The LDP could try to win public support for trade concessions by blaming U.S. protectionist pressures and growing anti-Japan sentiments. But, said Curtis, “it’s an increasingly dangerous tactic because it threatens to link difficult domestic issues to anti-American backlash.”

Experts say that because Washington had agreed to postpone the SII sessions until after the elections, U.S. trade negotiators will now expect quick results in return for their patience. But Kaifu has also made enormous protectionist commitments at home. Even while victoriously blackening the eye of his daruma doll last week, the prime minister faced the painful prospect of either disappointing the electorate—or touching off a full-fledged trade war with the United States.

ANDREW BILSKI with SUMIRE SUGIMOTO in Tokyo

SUMIRE SUGIMOTO