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Why Japan's least popular leader will probably win

Writing about Japanese politics normally poses problems like the uninitiated Westerner's first encounter with Kabuki theater.

The action proceeds at snail's pace. The plot is convoluted and obscure, making it hard to spot and appreciate the drama.

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The dedicated reporter can find himself bogged down in intricate maneuvers between warring intra-party factions without hope for a snappy headline.

But currently there is life and hope.

In a few weeks, Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki must seek reelection as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). It is generally assumed he will be successful. Therefore: end of story.

And yet . . . Mr. Suzuki has just achieved the dubious distinction of being the least popular prime minister in postwar Japanese history.

Public opinion polls released this week show a public support rating of only 16 percent against 35 percent firmly opposed. Last April, the comparative figures were 28 and 33 percent.

Suzuki thus surpassed former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka - now on trial in the Lockheed bribes case - who had only 18 percent support shortly before his resignation in 1974.

Other surveys show one in three Japanese are hoping the LDP can find another leader fast.

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The economy has been Suzuki's undoing.

Last week, he took the extraordinary step of declaring a financial ''state of emergency.'' Then, this Wednesday, Suzuki appealed to government employees to accept a pay freeze.

In fiscal 1981, the government suffered a revenue shortfall of almost $10 billion, which will expand, amid recession, to a predicted $19 to $23 billion when the current financial year ends next March.

As a result, Suzuki has been forced to accept the issue of additional deficit-covering government bonds, although still insisting he can keep his pledge of eliminating all such bond issues by fiscal 1984 and reconstruct state finances without increasing taxes.

The declaration of a financial emergency has not been well received.

Newspaper editorials unanimously condemned him for not mentioning his own political responsibility for the mess and not offering any concrete solutions.

They pilloried him as an ineffectual leader, pointing out that his favorite phrase when questioned about his plans on any issue is something like: ''I will make up my mind after hearing all opinions'' or ''I would like to reserve comment (or judgment) on that at this time.''

[On Wednesday this week, Suzuki told the Chamber of Commerce and Industry that the Cabinet would consider increased spending on public works and investment tax credits for small and medium businesses to help stimulate the economy.]

Even in a country that normally favors committee rather than individual decision-making, Suzuki is regarded as too weak.

Ichio Asukata, chairman of the main opposition Japanese Socialist Party, has urged creation of a united front to topple the present ''impotent and irresponsible administration . . . which has failed to come up with any rescue plan after leading the nation into bankruptcy.''

A poor showing in public opinion polls and opposition criticism are normal for governments in times of economic difficulty. But the voices of criticism are equally loud within the LDP.

Younger members of the powerful faction led by former Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda are calling for selection of a candidate to topple the ''incompetent and inconsistent'' Suzuki.

With the party's public standing down from 43 to 39 percent over the past six months, they fear defeat in next summer's upper house election, which may be coupled with a lower house vote.

There are demands within the LDP for an early, emergency parliamentary debate of the financial crisis - something Suzuki naturally wants to avoid.

At present it is unclear if anyone will actually oppose him. If there are at least four candidates, a primary election of the entire party membership will be held next month with the top two vote-getters facing a runoff in November of only the LDP parliamentary membership.

Suzuki's best hope lies in the more restricted, controllable vote of the upper and lower houses, as he can count on support of his own 87-member parliamentary faction and the 107-man Tanaka faction, and the 49 members of the faction led by Yasuhiro Nakasone, who apparently believes this loyalty will lead to his elevation as crown prince with guaranteed succession.

Public polls show Mr. Nakasone is the current favorite.

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