TOKYO — WITH the political rug yanked from under Toshiki Kaifu, the barons of Japan's ruling party are moving swiftly to line up a new prime minister.A front-running contender in the secret deal-making now underway inside the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is Kiichi Miyazawa, an experienced chief of the party's fourth-largest faction and a well-known international figure. In a newspaper opinion survey last month, Mr. Miyazawa was first choice to replace Mr. Kaifu, although public opinion weighs little in deliberations of the LDP, which has held power since 1955. Kaifu himself had near-record popularity before being forced to bow out last Friday. "The election of a new party leader is not going to follow public opinion," says another candidate, Hiroshi Mitsuzuka, leader of the second-largest faction. The party will hold an election Oct. 27 for a new president, who will automatically become prime minister. Most of the voting power will come from the LDP's 395 parliament members, although the votes from 1.7 million party faithful will also be given some weight. The last LDP election with an open contest took place 19 years ago. Since then, the LDP has preferred to cut back-room deals to divvy up Cabinet slots and rotate the prime ministership among leaders of five rival factions. No one faction is strong enough to pick the winner alone. Since Japan lacks a viable opposition, factional struggles give the nation a semblance of spirited democracy, with minor policy differences between contenders. Kaifu, who was more and more cornered by critics over the past month, withdrew suddenly in an act of self-martyrdom after scandal-tainted leaders of the party's largest faction failed to back his drive to revamp Japan's money-driven electoral system. "Political reform has been utilized throughout as a weapon for political combat," commented a Mainichi newspaper editorial. His quitting was as important an act as political reform itself, Kaifu said cryptically in a Saturday press conference. "I have nothing to say at this time and everything will be buried in my chest," he said following several days of political intrigue over his future. But his dramatic ending has helped to force each contender in the LDP race to take a public stand on political reform.
Restore Japan's image The English-speaking Miyazawa, although widely disliked within the LDP, has gained favor because the party seeks a leader to restore Japan's international image, which was damaged during two years of Kaifu's sometimes-inept leadership, and to reduce trade friction with the United States. Miyazawa sees this race as his "last chance" to be prime minister. The party also seeks a leader who can handle both an important visit by President Bush in late November and the anxiety-causing 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor in December. "Party members want someone who can act on his own knowledge in international affairs," says political analyst Minoru Morita. "Miyazawa is the only person who can bring back a tradition of stoicism in Japanese political leadership." Miyazawa is also helped by his seniority over other candidates, which counts for a lot in age-revering Japan. He turns 72 on Tuesday, having served in many Cabinet posts since first elected to the Diet (parliament) in 1953. "We will choose the one who can help the country, regardless of whether we like or dislike a certain candidate," says Keiwa Okuda, secretary general of the LDP's largest faction. That faction, led by former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita and Shin Kanemaru, holds sway over only 27 percent of the LDP's Dietmen, but it has maneuvered itself into again acting as king-maker in choosing the new leader. It was pivotal in a 1989 decision that plucked the "clean" and largely unknown Kaifu from the back benches to help rescue the party's image after the stocks-for-favor Recruit scandal forced out Mr. Takeshita. The faction plans to meet today, with many analysts and newspapers predicting that Miyazawa will win endorsement. Takeshita himself is seen as eager to resume power, but his tainted past still haunts him. Miyazawa was also tainted in the 1989-89 Recruit scandal after he admitted that his secretary accepted stocks as favors. "I will not repeat the same mistake," he now states. Once considered a statesman-like politician, Miyazawa got caught up in the moneyed politics that engulfed Japan's leaders in the 1970s and 80s, says Mr. Morita.
Scandals forgotten If Miyazawa does become prime minister, it may clear the way for other Recruit-tarnished politicians to assume high posts, and possibly allow Takeshita to return as prime minister in two years' time. Besides Miyazawa and Mr. Mitsuzuka, Michio Watanabe, the leader of the third-largest faction, is also in the running. All three faction leaders teamed up last month to oppose a second term for Kaifu. This threat from a powerful new alliance led the Takeshita-led faction to decide that it would not put up a candidate, effectively dropping Kaifu as its "puppet." Perhaps knowing his political end was near, Kaifu took the independent step of threatening "grave determination" (which in Japan usually means either dissolving the Diet or the Cabinet) after the LDP failed to support political reform. Such a threat was the last straw for the faction. "Since Kaifu came to power, he knew that he was only a relief pitcher," says Morita. "In the end, he forgot about his weakness." Another political analyst, Masaya Ito, told the Asahi newspaper, "The puppet stopped being a puppet."