Japan's Coalition

IN Japan these days, politics is a many-splintered thing.

Within hours after Tsutomo Hata was elected by parliament as prime minister earlier this week, the Socialist Party withdrew, citing backroom maneuvers among more conservative partners that threatened to isolate it. And even as he named his Cabinet yesterday, the Socialists were flirting with the Liberal Democratic Party, whose postwar grip on parliament was broken by reformists last summer. Their combined forces in a no-confidence vote could bring down what is now Mr. Hata's minority coalition.

If Hata and his advisers cannot convince a sufficient number of Socialists, and even dissident LDP members, to restore his coalition's parliamentary majority, Hata shouldn't wait for a no-confidence vote. Once the parliament adopts a new government budget, which should have taken effect April 1, Hata should consider calling for elections. The reform agenda he inherited and pledged to sustain looks as though it needs a fresh mandate.

On his right, the remains of the LDP are thwarting the desire among voters for reforms that make the government more accountable to them and not bureaucrats and big-money business interests. That obstructionism was evident in the resignation of Hata's immediate predecessor, Morihiro Hosokawa, who during his brief tenure pushed a reform package through parliament. He resigned over allegations -

sowed by the bureaucracy - of financial improprieties that when measured against recent Japanese political history were Lilliputian. But until he disproved the charges, the LDP vowed to -

and did - hold up the government's budget.

On his left, the Socialists remain dubious of calls for Japan to take a more assertive role in world affairs, particularly on the question of North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

In addition, the coalition has been divided over the issue of stimulating Japan's economy, something the US has advocated as a means of reducing its trade deficit with Japan.

Given the infighting, Japanese voters could be forgiven any signs of politics fatigue. But unless voters strengthen the hand of reformists in parliament, the likely winners - by default - will be the bureaucratic and big-money forces they sought to unseat last summer.

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