World Watches as Japan Plays Insider Politics the Policies of Three Candidates for Prime Minister Are Similar; It Boils Down to Styles

Article excerpt

You'd think the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) would have gotten the message.

Fed up about the economy, Japanese voters turned out in force to punish the ruling party in an upper-house election that cost the LDP 17 seats and sent its leader, Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, packing. On July 24, the LDP will vote to choose Mr. Hashimoto's successor, who will also become Japan's next premier.

Early indications are that the LDP will elect the most conventional, least reform-minded candidate of the bunch - Foreign Minister Keizo Obuchi. The vote, demanded by younger LDP members, represents a small break from the past and a recognition by the party that it has to change. The LDP's future - and that of Japan's troubled economy - will depend on the leader it chooses.

As the candidates stump among their colleagues, two demanding audiences are watching: an angry public that wants to see action on the economy and the world's financial markets, waiting to pass judgment.

Both may be disappointed.

"Unless something drastic happens, I think Mr. Obuchi will be elected," says Ichita Yamamoto, an LDP member who sits in the upper house of parliament. "There's a feeling among people {in the party} that they should vote for the winner, and the Obuchi faction has done a good job of convincing everyone he will win," Mr. Yamamoto says.

Politics in Japan has long meant politics within the LDP. The party has more or less governed the country since 1955, with only a 10-month stint in opposition in the early 1990s. The real political action has always been in the often-bitter struggles for supremacy between the party's factions.

One notable aspect of this election is that two of the three candidates are from the same camp, a development that suggests the factions' power and cast-iron unity may be waning. The 413 LDP members who will vote - the party's representatives in parliament and leaders from Japan's 47 prefectures - will cast secret ballots, meaning they can ignore their factions' directives and vote their conscience, making the result unpredictable.

Here's a look at the three men in the running for Hashimoto's job. Their policy differences are slim, and the race is boiling down to style. All promise reform and tax cuts in efforts to revive the economy.

Keizo Obuchi, the front-runner and current foreign minister, has recently been stung by a widely quoted comment that ascribes to him "all the pizazz of cold pizza." So stung, in fact, that he invited reporters over to his house and served up slices - piping hot. That gesture aside, the notoriously bland Mr. Obuchi is not a galvanizing politician. He is, however, well-liked and leads the LDP's largest faction. He is known as a staid company man - "an old man who cannot get away from old politics," says Takashi Mikuriya, a political scientist at Tokyo Metropolitan University. …