Japan's frustrated young pols

Old guard hasn't tackled the double troubles of leadership and the economy.

Japan's most durable political party will convene today in search of a way to avoid being dragged under by the twin sinkers of economic deterioration and political crisis.

Change floats is the terse response of the rebellious young guard of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). "This is the last chance for the LDP to make necessary changes. The LDP is heading for extinction in the next election," says Taro Kono, an LDP member of the Diet, or parliament. "We have to change the ... entire top echelon."

Those are strong words aimed at an older generation of LDP politicians. But the mighty LDP is in trouble. It's saddled with Yoshiro Mori, one of this country's most unpopular prime ministers in history.

Among the party's chief critics are a small band of Young Turks, who, like Mr. Kono, are either a son or daughter of an established politician. The leaders of the group include Nobuteru Ishihara, son of Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, and Makiko Tanaka, daughter of a former prime minister.

But their privileged place as children of political powerhouses, two of the young leaders argued in interviews, doesn't mean they are reluctant to challenge the establishment. On the contrary, they say, their fathers were also trying to push the party to change. Kono remembers being interrupted from cramming for a junior high biology exam by incessant media phone calls for his father - who had decided to leave the LDP and form his own party. The elder Kono, also the son of a politician, later returned to the LDP.

Other opposition parties here tend to be full of politicians who quit the LDP but lack unified platforms. As such, the younger Kono says he decided to join the LDP and change it from within. Now, the combination of economic despair and the public's lack of faith in the party could spell disaster at upper house elections scheduled for July, and possibly lower house elections soon afterward.

"If we lose big, that might stir the process of realignment," he says.

New voices like Kono's - savvy, direct and less likely to mince words than their fathers - are getting plenty of ink and airtime. But whether they will be listened to at today's convention and in the coming weeks - over which the process of choosing a new leader could be dragged out while budget deliberations continue - is still a question.

Japanese news media reported over the weekend that Mori had agreed in a closed-door meeting with senior party officials that he would step down soon. But yesterday, Mori denied those reports and said he had never expressed any "intention to resign" as quoted by the Japanese media.

Regardless, Mori's tenure yesterday looked a lot like the mid-march snow falling over Tokyo - fleeting and slightly out of season. Politicians and media pundits already speak of Mori as holding down the fort until a new prime minister can be installed.

The fact that Mori is on the verge of being escorted off the political stage less than a year into his gaffe-ridden tenure is proof, say party dissidents, that the leviathan of Japanese government must either reinvent itself or be shrunk down to size.

"We have to present a new leader who can change Japan, but that's exactly what many people in the party don't want, because they don't want to give up their place in line," says Kono.

Not long after Mori was hand-picked by a clique of party elders last April to replace Keizo Obuchi, who suffered a stroke and later died, Kono and several other up-and-coming politicians banded together to form the "LDP for Tomorrow." The group was established to challenge the kind of closed-door decisionmaking by senior party officials that led to Mori's speedy installation as the new prime minister.

But the group of new generation LDP politicians that convened in July with 50 members has since dwindled to the 20s. After a failed intra-party attempt to oust Mori last fall, the party establishment came down hard on the renegades, and most dissidents fell back into the party line out of fear of excommunication by the LDP higher-ups.

In his late 30s and Georgetown University-educated, Kono is disappointed that at a time when party critics should be coming out of the woodwork, too many LDP members seem to be waiting quietly for the usual party kingmakers to decide when Mori goes and who will take his place.

"If you don't criticize the government right now, when do you criticize? I thought the more- young members would be making noise, but there are only a few of us," laments Kono, seated in a new legislator's typically tiny Diet office.

Party leaders have several replacements for Mori in mind. Newspapers and political sources here have been raising names of politicians, most of them in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, as potential successors, including former Prime Ministers Yasuhiro Nakasone and Ryutaro Hashimoto, and LDP power-broker Hiromu Nonaka, one of the party elders in the "Gang of Four" who chose Mori for the job. Young members tend to favor former Health and Welfare Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Former actress Chikage Ogi, head of the New Conservative Party in the LDP's ruling coalition, has been mentioned as a dark horse candidate if the LDP can't find a successor in its own party.

Yoshimi Watanabe, another one of the LDP's young guns, says he is less concerned with who is the successor than how that person is chosen. Reformists such as Mr. Watanabe, also the son of a late LDP politician, say that the party must open the process of selecting candidates for prime minister, exposing it to the public at large.

"I'm not concerned with who, but how to chose the next leader and what that leader would do," Watanabe says. "The election should be open to debate, using the media to show what a candidate's policies are so the people would understand what they stand for."

Without that, he argues, no charismatic leader will be able to emerge, and Japan will continue on its seemingly leaderless path: The person who will replace Mori will be Japan's 11th prime minister in 13 years.

"There is no star in this system, only stardust," he says, "and we need to create a star."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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