Despite Scandal, Japan's Ruling Party Keeps Lock on Power

Times Staff Writer

A bribery scandal has devastated the government of Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita, causing one of his most trusted political aides to commit suicide Wednesday, a day after Takeshita declared his intention to resign in atonement for alleged fund-raising irregularities.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party is in disarray, unable to agree on an untainted successor to assume the reins of government other than a party elder who is 75 years old and ailing.

Powerful critics in the media are calling for the dissolution of the lower house of Parliament. The public is outraged by a new 3% consumption tax imposed by the ruling party, unilaterally and over vehement protest. Questions are being raised about the government's capacity to conduct foreign policy. And prosecutors are rumored to be preparing to indict several ruling party politicians.

In most countries, the situation might provide opposition forces with an excellent opportunity to make a grab for control of Parliament. But not in Japan.

Despite diatribes against the ruling party's "money-power politics," the opposition is hopelessly divided on policy and ill-prepared to ride the wave of the Recruit Co. influence-buying scandal into power. Posturing over the prospects of a coalition government is simply not credible, analysts say.

Nor can the opposition accurately claim to have unseated Takeshita. The prime minister faced unprecedented low popularity ratings--3.9% in a Kyodo News Service poll published April 16--and was hounded in a media campaign with disclosures that he and his aides received about $1.12 million in political donations and stock profits from Recruit Co., an information services, computer and real estate conglomerate.

"Takeshita made a preemptive attack against the opposition by announcing he would resign," said Seizaburo Sato, a professor of political science at Tokyo University. "It's clear that the opposition parties are in a less favorable position now," Sato said.

"I'm not saying they lost, but they wanted an election under Takeshita. They would have had a much better chance to gain seats."

The Liberal Democrats will pick a leader to replace Takeshita by the time the fiscal 1989 budget formally passes Parliament, where the opposition is clinging to a somewhat dubious strategy of boycotting deliberations while demanding sworn testimony by former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone on his role in the scandal.

The ruling party ignored the opposition boycott and rammed the budget through a lower house committee this morning, in keeping with its goal of taking it to a vote in a plenary session of the chamber by the end of the week. It was not clear whether the opposition would attend the plenary session. The budget is expected to be acted upon by the upper house, or go into effect automatically, by the end of May.

Masayoshi Ito, one of the few party stalwarts who has not been accused of accepting graft, is expected to get the nod as Takeshita's successor, even though he is frail and suffering from diabetes, a chronic but not necessarily life-threatening disease. According to the prevailing scenario, Ito would serve as a caretaker dedicated to reforming political fund-raising practices while guiding the party through an upper house election in the summer and a ballot for the lower house that must also be held by next summer.

The cause of political reform received emotional impetus Wednesday when Ihei Aoki, 58, the aide who handled Takeshita's finances, slit a wrist and hanged himself with a necktie in his Tokyo apartment.

Aoki and one of Takeshita's relatives traded in unlisted shares of a Recruit subsidiary along with more than 150 others in political, bureaucratic and business circles, earning windfall profits that in some cases, prosecutors allege, constituted bribes.

"I strongly regret (his action)," the Associated Press quoted Takeshita as telling reporters. "We walked side by side for over 30 years."

Shigezo Hayasaka, a political commentator, said in a televised interview: "We should take advantage of this tragic incident to focus on the political landscape where practicing politics costs too much money. People throughout Japan should bring out their wisdom to truly reform the situation."

Hayasaka was a friend of Aoki. He also was the personal secretary of Kakuei Tanaka, Takeshita's former mentor and the last prime minister to be forced to resign because of a fund-raising scandal.

Tanaka quit in 1974 and remained the most powerful figure in Japanese politics, even after he was arrested in 1976 for receiving a bribe from Lockheed--unrelated to the allegations that forced him to step down--and convicted on the charge in 1983. Tanaka withdrew from the political stage after a crippling stroke in 1985, but he technically retains a seat in Parliament while his appeal is pending.

Critics remain skeptical that the ruling party will attempt anything more than cosmetic changes in the political system. As it stands, massive spending is required to cultivate support in local constituencies, virtually dictating that successful politicians must bend the nominal rules on fund-raising.

'A Scanty Effort'

"The ruling party is talking about political reform, but if you examine the substance of their plan, all you see is some talk about restricting the sale of tickets to fund-raising parties--it's a scanty effort," said Teiko Kihira, vice chairwoman of the Japan League of Women's Voters.

"Takeshita's resignation announcement doesn't do anything to resolve the Recruit scandal," Kihira said. "This has tainted nearly the entire leadership of the Liberal Democratic Party, and even some of the opposition. It's structural corruption, and it's not going to be rooted out by cutting off the head."

Meanwhile, the hue and cry from the media continues. The newspaper Asahi, which broke the news of Recruit's ethically questionable stock transactions last summer and has maintained a lead role in disclosing the company's staggering program of political contributions, urged in an editorial Wednesday that the next administration dissolve the lower house and face the verdict of voters.

"The Recruit scandal revealed how rotten some politicians and those close to the incumbent and former prime ministers are," Asahi said. "This scandal will remain as an indelible stain in the postwar history of Japanese politics."

Takeshita's resignation "is only the beginning of the cleansing of Japan's rotten politics," the liberal newspaper said. "It would not be strange if the party is forced to turn over the helm of national politics to the opposition parties."

But an editorial in the conservative newspaper Yomiuri was more disparaging about the opposition.

"Although the support rate for the Takeshita Cabinet has plummeted to an all-time low, few have expectations of the opposition parties assuming political leadership," it said. "These parties should take this as severe public criticism. They are so divided over foreign and domestic policies that the public will not support an opposition government at this time."

Yet the major opposition parties--excluding the Communists--are keeping up the appearances of solidarity. Last week, leaders of the Japan Socialist Party, the Komeito or Clean Government Party, the Democratic Socialist Party and the Social Democratic Federation met in Kyoto to map out strategy for a coalition.

But the opposition lacks enough seats to wield any formal leverage to force dissolution or bring on a lower house election before the Liberal Democrats want one. It can only appeal to public opinion and try to shame the ruling party into submitting to an electoral test.

Meanwhile, little is being said about how the opposition parties would reconcile their formidable differences on policy. The Socialists advocate scrapping the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty and are friendly with North Korea, for example, while the Democratic Socialist Party adheres to a generally conservative ideology similar to the ruling party.

The public has expressed its displeasure in several recent local elections, suggesting that the ruling party will have to contend with a protest vote when half the seats in the less powerful upper house go up for grabs sometime in the summer.

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