TOKYO -- Opposition members of Parliament, infuriated over Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa's failure to lead a reform of Japan's notoriously corrupt political and electoral systems, today submitted a no-confidence motion against the government.
The move, if passed either today or tomorrow by the powerful lower house of Parliament, the Diet, would plunge Mr. Miyazawa into the most serious crisis of his rocky, 20-month-old administration. His likely response would be to dissolve the Parliament and call quick national elections, his aides said.
The fate of the prime minister and his government, whose popularity ratings have plummeted to unprecedented lows in recent months, hangs on whether rebels within his own scandal-wracked ruling Liberal Democratic Party side with the opposition. Many younger, reform-minded LDP members have threatened to do just that.
Mr. Miyazawa and the rest of the party's old guard were scrambling to head off at least some of the potential breakaway members, but their chances of success were unclear as the intense back-room struggle came down to the wire.
The upheaval within the LDP, which has ruled Japan almost without interruption since the end of World War II, couldn't come at a more unseemly moment: Mr. Miyazawa is to host the summit meeting of the G-7, the Group of Seven industrialized nations here in Tokyo in just three weeks. President Clinton is to arrive July 6 to hold independent meetings with Mr. Miyazawa on the day before the summit begins.
The opposition parties on their own do not have the strength to win a no-confidence vote in the lower house, the more powerful of the Diet's two chambers. The LDP, with 274 members, dominates the lower house with a 59-seat majority. However, a 35-member faction of self-proclaimed LDP reformers, led by former Finance Minister Tsutomo Hata, has threatened to throw its votes in with the opposition parties.
Other LDP reformers have indicated that they, too, would go along with the opposition to bring down the Miyazawa administration. The issue will come down to a numbers game and, analysts believe, the numbers will be close.
But LDP leaders predicted that even if party rebels voted with the opposition, the no-confidence vote would fail. They claimed that not all 35 Hata faction members were anxious to see Mr. Miyazawa go.
Independent analysts have reasoned that there is no obvious prospect to replace the prime minister and that his defeat would drag down large numbers of LDP stalwarts. Furthermore, some economic analysts believe that in Japan's current period of economic stagnation, the majority of people -- including those most seriously revulsed by the intraparty corruption -- would opt for the status quo.
Although rebellions within the LDP are not unprecedented, they are a rare occurrence in what is traditionally a tightly disciplined, mutually supportive group of factions. The last time a no-confidence vote against an LDP government passed was in 1980.
Frustration among reformers on both sides of the aisle has reached the boiling point as the indecisive Mr. Miyazawa has waffled over the issue of reform. The crisis has its roots in a series of political and financial scandals that have touched many of the most influential members of the ruling party.
Earlier this year, the scandals reached a new depth when LDP kingmaker Shin Kanemaru was found to have received massive payoffs from a gangster-infiltrated trucking company. Police discovered a stash of some $32 million in gold bars, debentures and cash hidden in the walls and floors of Mr. Kanemaru's home and office.
As more and more LDP top brass were tainted by the same poison, Mr. Miyazawa raised the slogan of reform, promising to clear out the smoke-filled back-room wheeling and dealing which have long characterized power playing in Japan.
But he also came under pressure from younger politicians to reform the gerrymandered electoral system, now tilted heavily toward Japan's small minority of farmers, who have traditionally backed the LDP. The hard core of traditional LDP leaders refused to go along with any serious plan to realign the voting pattern, reckoning that almost certainly this would cost them their lucrative positions.
Stuck behind this hurdle, Mr. Miyazawa did nothing.
Reflecting popular repugnance, the country's newspapers raised a chorus of disgust in their editorials today. The conservative Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest and most influential daily, suggested that Mr. Miyazawa resign immediately by taking responsibility for the debacle before a no-confidence vote could take place.
The Mainichi Shimbun also demanded the prime minister step down and gravely warned, Japan's democracy may collapse unless the political world reforms itself.