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Face the Music at Polls, Japan's New Chief Told

DESPITE growing signs that Japan's voters want a general election, the leaders of the country's ruling coalition government appear unwilling to let them have their say any time soon.

Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama announced an unexpected New Year's resolution on Friday - his intention to leave office - and it immediately became clear that International Trade and Industry Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto would take over the premiership.

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The rise of Mr. Hashimoto, a lifelong politician whose manner veers between self-assurance and cockiness, is provoking both frustration and relief. Many Japanese are happy to see Mr. Murayama go, since he often seemed weak during his 18 months in office. On Friday, word of Murayama's departure prompted a turnaround on the Tokyo stock market, where share prices rose.

But Hashimoto will be the fourth man to become premier since the country's last general election, held in July 1993, and commentators and opinion polls convey a fatigue with politicians repeatedly choosing new prime ministers and cabinets by themselves.

Japan's two most important newspapers, the Yomiuri and the Asahi, both say Murayama's resignation demands a general election. According to an opinion poll conducted by Asahi television over the weekend, roughly 60 percent of Japanese adults agree.

Ichiro Ozawa, Hashimoto's chief rival and the leader of the opposition New Frontier Party, is trying to capitalize on these sentiments. "I don't think it's right for the three ruling parties to shuffle the prime ministership among themselves this way and that without having an election," he said on Friday.

Hashimoto and his supporters insist the timing isn't right for an election, which must be held by mid-1997. They argue that politicians must now concentrate on passing next year's budget and on ensuring that Japan's slow climb out of a long recession proceeds without disruption.

But it is also true that virtually all politicians want as much preparation time as possible before being judged by their constituents. As always in politics, calculating which party can win is the paramount consideration. "If we thought we could win a majority," says Yasuhisa Shiozaki, a member of Hashimoto's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in the lower house of parliament (Diet), "we would hold elections right after the budget [is passed in April], but I think it will take longer" to gain the necessary confidence.

Apparently operating on the theory that an incumbent always stands a better chance in an election, Hashimoto seems willing to risk offending voters by grasping power and perpetuating the existing three-party ruling coalition. It is Hashimoto's style to be headstrong, as he displayed during auto-trade negotiations with the United States last year, and this decision is no exception.

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The July 1993 election heralded the end of Japan's post-war political system, which featured 38 years of rule by Hashimoto's LDP. Japan's Socialists provided strident but ineffectual opposition.

Weakened by incidents of corruption and the defections of self-proclaimed reformers such as Mr. Ozawa, the LDP lost its parliamentary majority in that vote. Opposition parties formed two subsequent governments, until the LDP found a way to regain power.

Overlooking almost four decades of fundamental disagreements, the LDP, the Socialists, and a small third party formed a coalition in June 1994. Having a Socialist premier gave the coalition a veneer of change, but the LDP has been by far the strongest party in it.

Analysts and politicians alike are unsure about what exactly the voters want but say that the current political system offers no accountability.

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