Japan political summit sparks grand coalition talk

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TOKYO, Oct 31 (Reuters) A rare summit between Japan's prime minister and the main opposition leader has fanned speculation that the two are plotting a ''grand coalition'' to resolve a political deadlock in a divided parliament.

Talk of an alliance, promoted by an influential media tycoon, gained steam after Democratic Party leader Ichiro Ozawa did an abrupt about face and met Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda yesterday.

The pair agreed to meet again on Friday and discuss the stalemate created when Fukuda's current coalition, which controls parliament's lower house, lost the upper chamber to Ozawa's Democratic Party and its allies in a July election. That gave the opposition power to delay legislation.

Coalition lawmakers, grilled by reporters, said an alliance of Fukuda's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) with Ozawa's Democrats would be tough but they declined to rule it out.

''Under the current electoral system, it would not be easy. Those are my frank thoughts. But that doesn't mean I am saying we should not,'' Kazuo Kitagawa, secretary general of the New Komeito, the LDP's junior coalition partner, told reporters.

''In this distorted situation in parliament, an important theme is how to find a way to reach agreements between the ruling and opposition parties to implement policies.'' Fukuda himself also sounded a cautious note.

''It's OK to think about it, but one must consider whether it is practical,'' Kyodo news agency quoted him as telling reporters.

The 65-year-old Ozawa, a veteran lawmaker who bolted from the LDP in 1993, met Fukuda yesterday to hear a plea to drop his opposition to a new law that would extend a Japanese naval mission in support of US-led operations in Afghanistan. An existing law enabling the mission expires tomorrow.

The pair said no deals were clinched, but they agreed to meet again to discuss both the naval mission and the broader deadlock.

The split parliament, in which Democrats and their small allies can delay all legislation other than the government budget and treaties and block some key appointments, could persist at least until the next upper house poll in three years.

The notion of a grand coalition has been promoted by the politically well-connected Tsuneo Watanabe, the octogenarian head of the conservative Yomiuri media group.

''We believe the LDP and the DPJ should join hands in building a stable political framework aimed at making headway in implementing important policies,'' the Yomiuri newspaper said in an editorial, adding Fukuda-Ozawa talks could be a first step.

The Democratic Party, an amalgam of former LDP members, ex-socialists and hawkish younger lawmakers, would appear to have little to gain by a coalition since the party may have its best chance ever of taking power in the next general election.

The poll must be held by late 2009 but may well come sooner.

But Ozawa has joined hands with the LDP before, taking a small party into the ruling bloc in 1999. He left the next year.

''It would be nightmarish for Japanese democracy, but he's not incapable of doing it,'' said Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo.

REUTERS SYU SSC1407

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