IF the machinations and intrigue of Japanese politics interest you at all, now is the time to make the popcorn.
For two months, Prime Minister Tsutomu Hata has led a shaky minority government that opposition parties have tolerated in order to pass Japan's long-overdue national budget. Yesterday the Diet, as parliament here is known, approved the spending plan. Then, the country's largest opposition group, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), introduced a no-confidence motion that would force Mr. Hata to resign or call elections if it passed.
Now the politicians are crowding into conference rooms, looking grave for the cameras as they sit in their upholstered armchairs. A period of intensive negotiation has begun, because the LDP cannot succeed in toppling Hata's government without the support of Japan's Socialists.
Not surprisingly, Hata and his allies have been imploring the Socialists to side with them. ``It is indeed a very close, neck-and-neck situation,'' says Minoru Morita, a political commentator here. The vote could happen as early as today and as late as next Wednesday, when the current parliamentary session ends.
Japan's political scene has been in flux since the LDP, a party simultaneously famous for guiding Japan to postwar economic strength and for devising a brand of corruption known as ``money politics,'' was ousted from power last summer.
The coalition that took over, a fractious assortment of politicians dominated by LDP defectors and Socialists, set out to clean up and reform the political system.
The common goal of political reform masked a slew of internal differences over economic and foreign policy issues, as well as divisive personal and political animosities. The coalition passed a political-reform law in December, but ran into trouble when then-Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa had to resign on April 8 over allegations of financial improprieties.
Hata was tapped to replace Mr. Hosokawa, but during weeks of negotiation the coalition's contradictions became insurmountable. The main socialist group, the Social Democratic Party, walked out of the coalition just hours after Hata's election. Many Socialists were glad their party was no longer cohabiting with some of Hata's backers, with whom they have little or nothing in common ideologically.
The main target of their enmity is Ichiro Ozawa, a politician who wants to make Japan more assertive internationally and is determined to further political reform. The Socialists, largely comfortable with a pacifist Japan, see him as a scheming manipulator, tainted by his years in the LDP.
Nonetheless, the Socialists this week began talking to Hata and Mr. Ozawa, saying they might be willing to rejoin the government. If they agree, Hata could fend off the LDP's attack.
Though the Socialists' backers in the labor movement are said to want the SDP to be part of the governing coalition, the prospect is deeply distressing to some Socialist Diet members. ``I'm shocked and disappointed at the nature of the Socialist Party,'' said a shaken Hideko Itoh, an SDP parliamentarian. She said the party's real motive in reconsidering the coalition is political self-preservation.
Like-minded Socialists may then break with their party and support the LDP's no-confidence measure. If the motion passes, Hata must resign the Cabinet in its entirety and try to reform a majority government or dissolve the Diet and call snap elections that would likely be held at the end of July.
According to Morita, a new election might result in an alliance that includes the LDP, the Socialists, and the members of a small group of liberal LDP defectors headed by Masayoshi Takemura, who also left the coalition in April. ``If a Takemura Cabinet can be organized,'' says Morita, ``then the policy would be fundamentally anti-Ichiro Ozawa.'' Ozawa's defection from the LDP sped its downfall, and he left few friends behind.
Complicating these scenarios is that the project of political reform is half-finished.
The legislation now in place calls for the election of more than half the Diet on the basis of single-seat districts. Cutting back on the number of parliamentarians elected through proportional representation is intended to make Japanese politics more issue-oriented and give elected officials a stronger hand in devising and implementing policy. The only problem is that a new electoral map has not yet been drawn.
The new system is threatening to the Socialists, who would likely lose seats. That is one reason why they have been tempted to side with LDP, so elections can be held under the existing rules.