Is Tokyo Ready To Trust The Communist Party?

The Japan Communist Party might sound like a relic from the cold war. But the 350,000-member party has softened its hard-line image and engineered a comeback by making a play for millions of voters hurt by Japan's deepest postwar recession and disillusioned by the pro-big-business policies and sleaze of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. "Many Japanese are starting to think that we're all they have," asserts deputy leader Kazuo Shii, head of the party's secretariat. "We're becoming socially acceptable and gaining credibility as a normal political party."

For the first time ever, the JCP is making overtures to other opposition parties such as the Democratic Party of Japan, with the aim of building a coalition capable of toppling the LDP from power. "We're ready to cooperate in creating a coalition government," says Shii, 44, a populist who has garnered support for the JCP. "We'll work together in the [Lower House], issue by issue, and then push to have it dissolved [for an early election]."

A general election need not be held for two years, but a united opposition could force the LDP to call one early by gumming up the legislative process. Opponents have already joined together to humiliate Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi. Though Obuchi had already been elected by the Lower House, which has the final say, the opposition--with JCP support--nominated DPJ leader Naoto Kan as premier in the Upper House.

PRESSURING OBUCHI. Now, opponents are mulling a strategy that could inflict real damage. The LDP has 104 of the 252 seats in the Upper House, which can delay but not overturn bills passed by the Lower House. Potentially, a united opposition could stall action for up to 60 days on key legislation, such as a bank rescue plan, that Obuchi is desperate to enact. "This means more pressure for Obuchi," says former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone.

Many opposition politicians are still reticent about any formal ties with the Communists. "Can we work with a party that still regards the U.S. as an imperialist power?" asks Yukio Edano, a senior DPJ legislator. In mid-August, the JCP started to tackle that problem by offering to put some parts of its programs on ice, including a demand to scrap the U.S.-Japan security treaty.

At the same time, the LDP is looking temptingly beatable. It clings to power with a slim 14-seat majority in the 500-seat Lower House. It is exposed both to possible desertions from within its own ranks and to unrelenting pressure for early elections. Even opponents leery of dissenting during a national crisis favor early elections--as do about half the electorate, according to an early August poll by the mass-circulation Asahi Shimbun. The same poll showed a massive 78% don't expect a better economy under Obuchi.

Since October, 1996, a series of wins has strengthened the JCP. In mid-July Upper House elections it garnered 14.6% of the national vote, making it the second-largest party there behind the DJP. Its rise parallels the erosion of the LDP's support. Indeed, the Communists now lure votes from once solid LDP constituencies such as housewives, farmers, and even conventional salarymen. They appeal strongly to voters fed up with the LDP's economic blunders. "I can't trust the LDP's policies looking at what's happened to the economy," says Toshio Nakai, manager of a small contractor near Tokyo, who voted JCP in July.

Voters like Nakai show how deep the LDP's problems now run. Provided present electoral trends continue, the ruling party is heading toward a rout at the next elections. If other opposition parties can overcome their suspicion of the JCP, Obuchi's reign might be short.