Nakasone walks a tightrope in keeping his job

Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone faces the most daunting challenge of his 36 -year political career. Following his party's stunning setback in Sunday's election, Mr. Nakasone must struggle to uphold Japan's international prestige - taking particular care to keep relations with the United States on an even keel - while trying to forge a new coalition within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and opening up a dialogue with a newly resurgent opposition.

He must do something, or be seen to be doing something, about the political morality issue focused on former premier Kakuei Tanaka. (The issue arose because Mr. Tanaka refused to resign his parliament seat after being convicted of bribe-taking.) The Tanaka faction remains the strongest within the Liberal-Democratic party, and finding a solution that will assuage public opinion and deflect opposition attacks, without losing support of the Tanaka faction, is about as difficult as the proverbial belling of the cat.

Japanese politics is frequently likened to a Kabuki play, in which gorgeously attired actors strut and posture about the stage while black-garbed workers, their faces covered with black cloths as a sign that they are supposed to be invisible, scurry around silently, changing props, straightening out an actor's costume after an active scene, or dragging off fallen bodies.

Mr. Nakasone's role during the next several weeks is to be at the same time that of the splendidly costumed actor (of course in appropriate postures of humility and sorrow), and of the kuroko,m the black-garbed helper.

He must be seen to be truly repentant over his party's unexpected election defeat and to be asking party elders for their advice. At the same time, without alienating the Tanaka faction, he must forge an all-party consensus.

His immediate task is to win reelection as prime minister. The Constitution stipulates that the Diet (parliament) must be convened within 30 days of an election, in order to elect a new prime minister. Mr. Nakasone wants to get the Diet convened and the election finished before the end of December.

But despite his repeated use of words such as ''humility'' and ''harmony'' during his post-election press conference, he is already accused of showing an unseemly determination to continue as prime minister come what may. Toshio Komoto, Mr. Nakasone's chief rival in the contest for the party presidency last year, has asked the prime minister to ''take responsibility'' for the party's election losses.

What Mr. Nakasone would obviously like to do is to free himself from the Tanaka faction's albatross-like embrace and to move closer to the anti-mainstream factions. This is a delicate process, strewn with obstacles.

One misstep could lose Mr. Nakasone the Tanaka support he now needs to retain his office as prime minister without necessarily gaining him the support he needs more broadly within the party.

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