Hata Is Japan's Man of the Hour, But That Fluctuates by the Minute

The uncertainty reflects rifts between the ruling coalition's member parties - and, meanwhile, a budget crisis looms

THE Japanese foreign minister, Tsutomu Hata, is spending this weekend in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh, where he will sign the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

While a GATT meeting is hardly anyone's idea of a good time, especially not Japanese officials who are endlessly told to open their country's markets to more foreign goods, Mr. Hata is probably glad he is not in Tokyo.

He is expected to be named Japan's prime minister next week, but the lingering suspense over his future might be a bit much to witness firsthand.

Uncertainty suffused this capital city on April 8, when Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa announced his resignation. Hata was immediately deemed the frontrunner to replace Mr. Hosokawa, but then lost favor when groups within the ruling coalition could not agree to back him. Other politicians began maneuvering to get the top job.

On Wednesday, Hata again regained momentum, and newspapers started calling him the only candidate. The Nikkei Stock Average shot up out of relief that the political deadlock would soon end. But the coalition needs the votes of all seven of its parties to maintain its majority in the Diet, parliament's lower house, and yesterday one of them was holding out on Hata.

He still seems likely to become prime minister, even though ``it's not definite yet,'' says Yukio Matsuyama, a leading journalist and political commentator here.

The coalition is ostensibly split over how to choose its new leader, but that disagreement is merely indicative of more profound disparities. For example, the coalition's Socialists disagree on foreign policy issues with the man seen as the power behind both Hosokawa and Hata.

He is Ichiro Ozawa, who with Hata leads the Shinseito, or Japan Renewal Party. Mr. Ozawa advocates a more activist role for Japan overseas, a policy the Socialists oppose, particularly with regard to what steps should be taken to curb North Korea's alleged nuclear-weapons program. There are also disagreements over economic policy and Japan's stance in the current trade conflict with the United States.

Yesterday the Socialists seemed willing to go along with Hata in the interest of preserving coalition unity. But another party, called the Sakigake or New Harbinger Party, was still saying there was no deal. The Sakigake leader, Masayoshi Takemura, insists that the coalition reach broad agreement on key issues before it selects the new prime minister, a process that would undoubtedly be contentious and slow, if not impossible.

Mr. Takemura is said to be primarily concerned that Ozawa would wield too much power in a Cabinet led by Hata.

Meanwhile, Japan started its fiscal year on April 1 without a budget, and the pressure is mounting on the politicians to get down to business. Adding to the coalition's worries are two members of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, who are also seeking the premiership.

For his part, Hata was saying he had not been asked to take the job, but one watcher of Japanese politics who saw Hata this week says he exudes confidence and calm in person.

Hata is a middle-of-road politician who favors gradual change and reform - the words of the moment in Japanese politics, which is now going through its post-cold-war shakeout. He is well liked, has the political savvy that Hosokawa lacked, and is thought by many to be an ideal compromise candidate.

``Hata can be compared to Gerry Ford,'' says Mr. Matsuyama, who used to cover politics in Washington, referring to the former US president.

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