Who is the likeliest prime minister of Japan after elections June 22 -- the hawkish Yasuhiro Nakasone, the successful businessman Toshio Komoto, or the cerebral Kiichi Miyazawa?
Just one week before election day, anyone's guess would seem to be as good as the expert's. It is possible that none of these three front-runners will gain the prize. Nor are former prime ministers Takeo Fukuda and Takeo Miki in the running, although Mr. Fukuda is a possible temporary compromise candidate.
Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira's sudden passing June 12 has hastened a process almost all political commentators regarded as inevitable -- the changing of the guard, even in gerontocratic Japan, from one generation to the next.
One thing seems nearly certain. The next prime minister of Japan will be a Liberal Democrat -- in other words, a conservative. The Liberal Democrats have ruled this politically stable country since the party was formed 25 years ago.
But depending on the outcome of the elections, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) may be forced into a coalition with one or more moderate opposition parties: the Buddhist Komeito, or the Democratic Socialists, or both. In that case, for the first time since the short-lived coalition governments of 1947 and 1948, opposition parties will have an important say in the choosing of the prime minister.
This, too, is one aspect of the changing of the guard. Among leaders of the opposition are a number of ambitious hustlers who can aspire to the prime ministership once the LDP's iron grip is broken. But none of them is likely to be an immediate contender.
Among the Liberal Democrats, the outspoken Mr. Nakasone should be the leading candidate. He has already contested the party presidency, and he has filled most of the important party and government posts considered as prerequisites for the prime ministership. Long a hawk on defense matters when it was unpopular to be so, he has seen security become a matter of pressing concern to Japanese voters as they realize their oil-poor nation's precarious position in an unsettled world.
Yet somehow Mr. Nakasone is not trusted by mainstream Liberal Democrats -- factions owing allegiance to Mr. Ohira or to former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka. Despite his increasing political stature, many still regard him as an unstable maverick. And because of his defense views, he is one Liberal Democrat opposition parties would most object to, should the election results give them a say in the choice of a prime minister.
Mr. Nakasone's chief rival, Mr. Komoto, has a party and government record comparable to his. In addition he is a self-made businessman. He took over the Sanko Steamship Company while still in his 20s and built it into a highly successful enterprise. The 69-year- old Mr. Komoto, who is hale and vigorous, has a reputation for stubborn honesty.
When Mr. Ohira recently lost a vote of confidence in the Diet, precipitating the current election, Mr. Komoto was one of 63 Libera Democrats who abstained. He did so out of loyalty to former Premier Miki, to whose faction he belongs. (Mr. Nakasone, by contrast, voted for Mr. Ohira.) The Ohira faction and its ally , the Tanaka faction, may have difficulty forgiving this slap at the late prime minister.
Thus, if neither Mr. Nakasone nor Mr. Komoto win a majority within their own party, there is a chance for a younger man, Mr. Miyazawa. A member of the Ohira faction, Mr. Miyazawa is one of Japan's foremost political thinkers, especially on the role of the nation in international affairs.
But the former foreign minister (1974 to 1976) is something of a loner in the clubby world of LDP politics, and it is not certain he can manage even to win even the leadership of his own faction. Nevertheless, Mr. Miyazawa outdistanced both Messrs. Komoto and Nakasone in a recent impromptu newspaper poll of housewives.
A few years younger than Mr. Miyazawa is a whole flock of Liberal Democratic politicians impatiently awaiting the political limelight. Mr. Ohira's passing has hastened the day when these youngsters in their 50s can contend for the top position.
Is there a Kennedy amongst them? Perhaps a Jimmy Carter? The field is wide open, and so far no one has emerged as a clear front-runner.