Japan's premier expected to say he'll step down

October 05, 1991|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun

TOKYO -- Japanese Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu is expected to announce later today that he will not seek a second term, raising the question whether a political leader here can exercise power and leadership in the Western sense.

Close associates of Mr. Kaifu, who has led the country for two years, said he will step down as leader of the majority Liberal Democratic Party at the end of this month. The majority party's leader is automatically prime minister.

Mr. Kaifu's decision followed a stunning setback last Monday when leaders of his own party unceremoniously scuttled a plan to reform Japan's scandal-ridden political system. In seeking to cripple the back-room money men who dominate Japanese political factions, Mr. Kaifu acted more like the assertive Western-style leader U.S. officials have urged than the cautious consensus seeker typical here.

As recently as last week, the 60-year-old Mr. Kaifu's chances to remain in office seemed steadily improving. He was named party leader in 1989 when stronger candidates were tarnished by a major influence-peddling scandal. At the time, he was considered a "just a relief pitcher," in the words of one political leader, filling the seat until the memory of the scandal dissipated.

Instead he tried to become the sort of assertive political leader that President Bush urged him to be -- someone who could reach agreements with foreign governments and make them stick in Tokyo.

However, his lack of a political base among the factions that make up the Liberal Democrats weakened his ability to get out in front on a sensitive issue.

At almost every step, Mr. Kaifu campaigned for reform of Japan's political system in much the way a U.S. politician might have.

He named a high-powered national commission to draft the plan. He announced early on that he would "stake my political future on it." He backed a reform with teeth, one that would have switched the country's electoral system to single-member districts, cost many incumbents their jobs and added new controls to campaign spending and contributions.

When the plan got in trouble, he rattled a Japanese prime minister's equivalent of a U.S. president's veto, the power to dissolve the Diet's lower house and force a new election.

But the back-room money men who hold the real power in the Liberal Democratic Party turned the prime minister's attempts at political leadership into a trap and used it to force him out.

With a suddenness that wiped away Mr. Kaifu's trademark boyish grin and left him angrily grimacing into television cameras the rest of the week, they sent a little-known committee chairman out front to announce almost casually that the parliament was dumping the prime minister's two years of work on political reform.

For five days, he tried to maneuver a compromise. When that failed, he threatened to force new elections, a move that would instill fear in office-holders in other parliamentary systems.

In Japan, where no man dares let it seem that he feels bigger than the group he is part of, the threat smacked of arrogantly going it alone. It handed the money men their excuse to finish off a prime minister they had never meant to leave in office for a full term.

Among the three senior faction leaders who have announced that they want to succeed Mr. Kaifu -- Kiichi Miyazawa and Michio Watanabe, both former finance minsters, and Hiroshi Mitsuzuka, a former trade minister -- none has risen without habitually bending to the system. Others also representing traditional factions are expected to enter the contest.

The sudden change leaves the Bush administration to wonder, after two years of courting Mr. Kaifu with five summit meetings and scores of phone calls, who will be in charge here when the president comes for a state visit late next month.

That will not be decided until Oct. 27, just weeks before the Bush visit, when the LDP elects its new president.

All three known candidates are men the Bush and Reagan administrations have long cultivated, aware that they might one day rise to power. All also are deeply conservative and unlikely to change the huge U.S. role in Japan's foreign policy.

All are unlikely to go in for much stand-up leadership -- the kind that they themselves helped to punish Mr. Kaifu for last week.

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