Japan's new prime minister staggers toward power A parliament of nice guys becomes a shark tank for the next election

August 07, 1993|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau

TOKYO -- A land accustomed to consensus politics has entered an unfamiliar age of high-stakes gambles and head-to-head confrontation.

After determined opposition at every step from the ousted Liberal Democratic Party, Morihiro Hosokawa was finally elected prime minister yesterday, but not installed. His seven-party coalition held together better than predicted during the unexpected onslaught.

But if the new government's extended birth struggle proves anything, it is that all sides already are much more focused on the next election -- which could come within a year -- than they are on governing the country through its worst recession since World War II.

The Liberal Democrats spent their first two days in opposition, after 38 straight years in power, repeatedly testing their muscle and coming up short, never gaining more than their own 224 votes.

The coalition parties proved they have the votes -- at least 262 of the chamber's 511 on every tally last night -- to override LDP protests and write the new calendar and agenda for the new session of the Diet, or parliament.

They also made Socialist Takako Doi the highest-ranking woman in Japan's political history, naming her speaker of the Diet's lower house.

/# But the LDP managed to keep the

chamber in an uproar. Its hardball tactics stretched the first organizing votes to an unprecedented five hours last night.

"This is just like a fistfight among kids; it's pathetic," said Kenzo Uchida, a TV political commentator.

By this morning, the Liberal Democrats' Kiichi Miyazawa was still prime minister, even though his Cabinet resigned Thursday. Mr. Hosokawa found his moment of victory undercut by the two-day delay the LDP had forced. By the time the coalition gained his election, Emperor

See JAPAN, 5A, Col. 1 JAPAN, from 1A

Akihito was away from Japan and unavailable to install him until Monday.

Crown Prince Naruhito could preside in his father's absence, but that ceremonial indignity would give the LDP just the kind of petty victory the coalition fought for two days to block.

"It's going to be utter chaos until the next election," said Dan Harada, a lobbyist who represents several big foreign companies.

"You now have to get seven parties lined up instead of one for every decision, and they are already positioning themselves to suck each other's blood in the next election as well as to fight the LDP. Nobody will be able to think about anything else until the election is over."

'Utter chaos' strategy

Indeed, two days of struggle suggest that creating an impression of "utter chaos" is part of the strategy devised by the LDP, which appears determined to force its prophecy that the coalition is too unstable to govern.

But that high-risk strategy has a potential to damage the LDP itself.

By yesterday, many TV commentators were using terms like "juvenile" and "senility" to describe the LDP's first days in opposition -- expressions like the ones the LDP itself once applied to the Socialists as that party lost its influence in recent years by emphasizing opposition for its own sake.

"It's too soon for any polls, but the first signs are that voters are already starting to ridicule the LDP for its obstructionism," said public opinion specialist Mariko Nishikawa.

Maneuvering for the next election is as intense among the seven partner parties as it is between the coalition and the LDP.

Jockeying within the coalition began last week with the choice of Mr. Hosokawa, founder of the grass roots Japan New Party, as prime minister, Mr. Harada said.

For weeks, the coalition had been expected to put up former Finance Minister Tsutomu Hata, of the Renewal Party.

Instead, Mr. Hata and his party's chief strategist, Ichiro Ozawa, proposed Mr. Hosokawa.

+ "They mousetrapped Hosokawa

-- he'll be so busy he can't be out lining up the candidates his party needs for the next election," Mr. Harada said. "Ozawa's plan all along has been to kill off the other opposition parties and take over their votes in order to build a new party to compete with the LDP."

If that was indeed why the Renewal Party went for Mr. Hosokawa, that move, too, is a high-risk gamble.

Mr. Hosokawa's low-key personality has been dynamite on TV for the past year, and is widely credited for the surprise showing his untested party made in the July 18 election. Some analysts are suggesting that a year of the extensive TV exposure a prime minister can command might make him the most formidable political personality in Japan.

Fight for speaker

In its first two days in opposition, the LDP built its challenge around an attempt to keep the house speakership in its own hands.

The job is a largely ceremonial one that the LDP always has

given to some trusted septuagenarian warhorse. But the speaker is the lower chamber's traffic cop. The position includes, among other things, substantial influence over the timing of an election.

Given the depth of political uncertainty -- and the critical importance of the next election -- the speaker's post was not a job the coalition was prepared to give away to an opposition that is still the biggest and most experienced party in parliament.

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