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Japanese Opposition Party Leader Resigns

December 3, 2002

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TOKYO (AP) _ Japan’s struggling political opposition suffered another blow Tuesday, when its leader resigned under fire for suggesting his party merge with a rival group.

Yukio Hatoyama’s announcement that he will quit as head of the Democratic Party, Japan’s largest opposition party, was the latest bad news for the nation’s political underdogs, who have been dwarfed for decades by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Hatoyama was strongly criticized by the Democratic Party’s leadership for suggesting last week that the party’s best chance of challenging Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was to join forces with other, smaller opposition parties.

The infighting came on the heels of embarrassing losses in national elections and only underlined the party’s weakness and flagging popularity.

``I want to apologize to those who have supported me since I was re-elected as party head in September. I have to step down,″ Hatoyama said after a morning meeting with party elders. He plans to leave the post Dec. 13.

The fallout continued later Tuesday when Takeshi Yamamura, deputy director of the Democrats’ campaign bureau, said he would quit the party in protest. His secretary Kenji Tamura quoted Yamamura as saying he was ``fed up with the recent confusion.″

Hatoyama, who has led the Democrats since September 1999, said merging with the smaller Liberal Party and other opposition groups would turn Japan’s multiparty politics into a two-party rivalry. But he was slammed for moving ahead without seeking party approval.

The Democratic Party poses only a weak challenge to Koizumi’s LDP-led coalition.

The Liberal Democratic Party has dominated Japan’s politics since its establishment in 1955, ruling the government for all but 10 months in the early 1990s. The LDP has a solid majority in Parliament, a comfortable relationship with the central bureaucracy and the support of the business community.

The LDP’s three-party coalition currently controls 279 out of 480 seats in the lower house, the more powerful of Parliament’s two chambers. The Democratic Party holds just 125 seats; the Liberals, the next largest party, have only 22.

Though discontent over Japan’s stalling economy is high, few voters see the opposition as offering much of an alternative to the status quo _ both Hatoyama and Liberal Party leader Ichiro Ozawa are former LDP members.

``Opposition leaders don’t have the vision it takes to run the government,″ said Eiji Akashi, a 67-year-old retiree in Tokyo.

Hatoyama’s possible successors include former party head Naoto Kan and Katsuya Okada. Neither was expected to bring major changes to the party agenda, though their positions on the possible merger were not clear.

The centrist Democratic Party has at times loosely aligned itself with the Communists, Socialists, and the hawkish Liberals. But the parties have widely varying policies and agree on little more than the need to oppose the ruling coalition.

Few analysts see a merger as successful.

``Their views on everything from the economy to diplomacy are too different,″ said Tetsuro Kato, professor of political science at Tokyo’s Hitotsubashi University.

The opposition’s appeal has also been eclipsed by Koizumi’s personal charisma.

Since Koizumi rose to power last April on a reformist platform, his enormous public appeal has prevented the opposition from protesting too noisily against weaknesses in his government and scandals within his ruling party.

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