Japanese politics was once again turned on its head Thursday as a former ruling party prime minister was elected to lead Japan's newest and biggest-ever opposition party.
Toshiki Kaifu, who led the nation and served as president of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) from August, 1989, until October, 1991, was elected over two rivals to the leadership of the New Frontier Party, a combination of eight opposition groups that lost power in June.
Kaifu's selection, together with the unopposed choice of Ichiro Ozawa as secretary general of the new party, put the same two men at the helm of Frontier as had steered the LDP when Kaifu was in power.
In Thursday's election, Kaifu, 63, won 131 votes among the 214 Frontier members of both houses of Parliament, defeating former Prime Minister Tsutomu Hata, who polled 52, and Takashi Yonezawa, chairman of the middle-of-the-road Democratic Socialist Party, who received 31 votes.
There were 180 Frontier members of the lower house voting, guaranteeing that the party would have at least that many seats in the chamber that chooses the prime minister. The LDP, whose 38-year unilateral rule of Japan ended in August, 1993, now controls 200 seats in the 511-member lower house and is the biggest part of the governing coalition under Socialist Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama.
It was Ozawa, who favors an activist role for Japan abroad and a smaller government with less control over the economy at home, who ended the LDP's almost four decades of unilateral power by defecting from the party 18 months ago. Then Kaifu bolted the LDP in June to run as Ozawa's candidate for prime minister when the LDP backed Murayama.
"It is like turning the clock backward," the newspaper Asahi said in an editorial. The selection of Kaifu and Ozawa "lacks freshness," it complained.
Some TV commentators criticized the new party, which will hold an inaugural convention Saturday, as simply "a second LDP," with no distinctive policy of its own.
Yoshiro Mori, LDP secretary general, condemned the combination as "a resurrection of the old LDP essence," as if to imply that his own party had assumed a new character after forging its coalition with the Socialists--an alliance that was the biggest upset of political traditions here.
Kaifu returned the criticism.
"When I look at the LDP-Socialist coalition, I see only support for the status quo," Kaifu said. "We need decisive reforms, decisive policies."
Taking over in the wake of a stocks-for-favors scandal, Kaifu, with a clean image, was a popular but ineffective prime minister.