Japan's Leaders Bicker and Stall Over Choice Of Premier

JUST after Japanese Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa announced two weeks ago that he would step down, the members of his ruling coalition said they would decide on a replacement within a week. Make that two. Possibly three.

The coalition brings together - ``unites'' is the wrong word - politicians with diverse visions of Japan, and in the past few days they have undertaken an arduous task: reaching broad agreements on some contentious issues.

Consequently the formal selection of Foreign Minister Tsutomu Hata as a replacement for Mr. Hosokawa was delayed all week and may be put off until after the weekend.

As has become common of late, some frustrated Socialists threatened yesterday to leave the coalition, which can little afford defections.

People here have witnessed the same scenes over and over again: politicians gathering for meetings and politicians explaining why they can't agree. The coalition sometimes seems like a bickering family out for a Sunday drive in a car that stalls at every stoplight.

At the same time, the Japanese media, apparently certain of the outcome of the current negotiations, has put out a stream of mythmaking profiles and specials about Mr. Hata. Gastronomically astute reporters have ventured out to eat soba, buckwheat noodles, at a restaurant patronized by the noodle-loving Hata.

The object of all this attention has not yet declared his candidacy for the top job, but maintains an air of dignified, sometimes bemused, confidence in public.

When Hosokawa said he was stepping down amid a percolating scandal over his political finances, he unleashed a wave of speculation that Japanese politicians would realign themselves along policy lines: Conservatives on one side, liberals on the other. The current political scene features the internally divided coalition and a major opposition party that likewise embraces politicians of opposing opinions.

Some observers said the post-Hosokawa power shuffle heralded a major recasting of parties and the emergence of ideologically coherent groupings. But that day was postponed when the coalition decided to stick it out, a step that some here see as a cynical clinging to power.

Rei Shiratori, a political scientist at Tokai University, says the effort to maintain the coalition shows its members' overriding sense of pragmatism, ``because they have nothing in the way of political principles'' in common.

That is why Ichiro Ozawa, the powerful secretary-general of Hata's Japan Renewal Party, has insisted that the coalition agree on a policy platform before Hata is officially designated the coalition's candidate. Mr. Ozawa seems to share the belief of many analysts here that the coalition's divisions are so deep that a Hata government will quickly crumble unless coalition members agree now not to disagree later.

The major stumbling block is tax reform. The conservatives in the coalition - led by Hata's and Ozawa's Japan Renewal Party - favor funding an income tax cut, already in force, by boosting the national sales tax from 3 to 7 percent.

But the Socialists, the largest bloc in the coalition, oppose the sales tax hike. ``I agree with income tax reduction,'' says Hideko Itoh, a member of the Social Democratic Party. ``But the question is how to fund it.''

Ms. Itoh argues that the income tax cut, a Reaganesque attempt to boost spending and investment by the rich, principally favors the wealthiest fifth of the population, while the remaining ``80 percent of the population may suffer as a result of the increase in the [sales] tax.'' She says the sales tax hike would stifle, not encourage, domestic spending, which was the central goal of the income tax cut.

The coalition is also troubled by North Korea's alleged nuclear weapons. Ozawa and like-minded conservatives favor wholehearted cooperation with the United States, South Korea, and the United Nations in pushing the North to open fully its nuclear sites to international inspection.

That stance is uncomfortable for the Socialists, who have long maintained relatively friendly ties with the North Korean regime.

The Japanese media, meanwhile, has been busy preparing readers and viewers for Hata's emergence as prime minister. He has been portrayed as a reform-minded, experienced politician who is also a regular guy, as evidenced by 10 years of work for a bus company.

The public seems at least content with Hata. A report on a poll conducted by the Yomiuri newspaper said Wednesday that 61 percent of 2,100 people interviewed would support Hata.

The same poll said 60 percent also thought Hosokawa's resignation was ``irresponsible.'' Hosokawa came into office last August vowing to change the political and economic system, and many say he abandoned the post without fulfilling his mandate.

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