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New Japanese Premier Inherits Divided, Shaky Ruling Coalition

Amid weeks of political wrangling, a new kind of politics is emerging in Japan

THE Japanese parliament formally elected Foreign Minister Tsutomu Hata yesterday to succeed outgoing Premier Morihiro Hosokawa, ending more than two weeks of political instability, at least for now.

The event was preceded by promises of continuity from Japan's ruling coalition, which Mr. Hata now leads, and simultaneous warnings from political analysts about the coalition's inability to keep from breaking up over the issues that divide it.

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Hata's government will likely be very similar to the one led by Mr. Hosokawa, only drier. Hata echoes his predecessor's commitment to political reform and deregulation and comes into office with the clean, scandal-free image that Hosokawa so recently lost in a loan scandal.

But where Hosokawa's samurai heritage and relaxed personal style gave his tenure in office a patrician splash, Hata trades on his 10 years of work in a bus company to create the image of a ``salaryman'' politician.

Many Japanese are disappointed that Hosokawa left office without doing more to bring about dramatic changes in Japan's political and economic systems, and some observers doubt that Hata has the popular support and the skill to reach those goals.

But that is not to say that people here believe that the process of fundamental change that the Hosokawa administration heralded has stopped. Indeed, analysts point to the past two weeks of political wrangling to show that a new kind of politics is emerging in Japan, albeit slowly.

From the mid-1950s until last summer, Japan was governed by the Liberal Democratic Party, an amalgamation of conservative politicians who overlooked their differences to join in keeping the leftists out of office and rebuilding the country's economy.

The LDP was remarkably successful on both counts, but during the 1980s the system it created to reach its goals began to suffer a good deal of criticism. The infamous ``iron triangle'' of big business, LDP politicians, and bureaucrats started to appear as the cause of some of the country's problems rather than the source of its prosperity.

Public disgust with political corruption scandals in particular led to the LDP's loss of a parliamentary majority last summer and to the creation of the coalition, which includes a large number of liberal, Socialist politicians as well as reform-minded defectors from the LDP.

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Like the LDP, the coalition embraces politicians of different feathers linked for reasons of political expediency.

In the past two weeks, however, Japan has witnessed several attempts by politicians to create alliances that would have brought ideologically similar leaders together. In one case, Ichiro Ozawa, the co-leader of Hata's Japan Renewal Party who is seen as the most powerful member of the coalition, tried to forge an alliance with a senior LDP faction leader. The deal, had it worked, would have enabled Mr. Ozawa to oust the Socialists from the coalition and perhaps fashion a ruling party or alliance with a shared vision of Japan. In another instance, Socialist and liberal LDP defectors held talks with current LDP members in an attempt to forge their own alliance.

Although this process of breakdown and renewal has not happened yet, notes political scientist Rei Shiratori, ``Gradually the realignment ... will get some kind of sense.''

``What's happening is of considerable import,'' says one Western diplomat here. He says the partisan and ideological fault lines that striate political groups like the LDP and the coalition became much clearer during the two weeks of wrangling as politicians sought common ground. And in the near term, he argues, ``Hata is no less committed to this idea of deregulation ... than was Hosokawa.''

Although analysts expect the coalition to founder again on the divisive issue of tax reform, it is generally agreed that the Hata government will be able to implement a political reform law that parliament has already approved. The central accomplishment of Hosokawa's term, the reform will redraw constituencies in an effort to make politicians more accountable and less corruptible.

The government will also move quickly to pass the budget for the fiscal year that began April 1, much to the relief of Japanese businesses and investors. It will include a tax cut and a stimulus package that economists hope will spur what is beginning to look like an end to Japan's three-year recession.

An important danger zone is North Korea. Coalition conservatives favor a more aggressive stance, but liberals and Socialists argue for a pacifist, hands-off approach that they say is more in keeping with Japan's Constitution. ``If things don't go in an untoward fashion on the Korean Peninsula,'' the diplomat says, the coalition members ``may be able to keep this thing together until the end of the year.''

If the Hata government has indeed accomplished electoral redistricting by that time, the country would then elect a parliament under a structurally new political system.

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