Dithering Japanese PM resigns


The Japanese left's brief grip on power came to an end yesterday with the sudden resignation of the Prime Minister, Tomiichi Murayama. His indecisiveness in the face of a series of disasters inspired record levels of apathy and disillusionment among voters.

Two-and-a-half years after the defeat of the Liberal Democratic Party in elections that promised a decisive change in Japanese politics, the new prime minister is almost certain to be Ryutaro Hashimoto, trade and industry minister and leader of the LDP.

The timing of Mr Murayama's announcement was unexpected, but his demise had long been predicted and few expected him to last as long as he did. He came to power 18 months ago, in an unlikely coalition between his Social Democratic Party (SDP), and two of its ideological opponents - the LDP and the small splinter group Sakigake (New Harbinger).

After 38 years of unbroken majority rule, the LDP had lost its majority in 1993, but remained the biggest party. Mr Murayama's acceptance of the premiership was a transparent act of political opportunism that forced the humiliating renunciation of most of his party's socialist principles.

He presided over one of the most turbulent and troubled periods in post- war Japanese history, and a series of crises - including the Kobe earthquake, the gas attack on the Tokyo subway and the foundering Japanese economy - were met with indecision. Mr Murayama's one determined act - the passing of a resolution apologising for Japanese aggression on the 50th anniversary of the Second World War - was undermined by LDP members of his own coalition.

"I have decided to resign today," a somewhat relieved-looking Mr Murayama, 71, told a televised news conference yesterday, admitting that he had "used up all my strength".

"I thought it was time to renew the people in government and make a fresh start in the new year," he said.

The announcement caused little more than superficial surprise, and the Tokyo Stock Exchange actually rose slightly on the news.

Mr Murayama's place will almost certainly be taken next week by Mr Hashimoto, whose assertive manner and confident nationalism have earned him a reputation as one of the most colourful and popular politicians in the country.

A dry, carefully groomed 58-year-old, with a fancied resemblance to Elvis Presley, Mr Hashimoto has been easily the strongest of the coalition leaders since his election to the LDP presidency in September. Last spring, he won huge domestic popularity for his combative refusal to yield to US demands to open up the Japanese automobile market.

His nationalism and assurance in international negotiations have given anxious pause to foreign diplomats - on VJ-Day, as Mr Murayama was trying to convince the world of his country's contrition for wartime atrocities, Mr Hashimoto was one of nine cabinet ministers who defied their prime minister's orders by attending services at a nationalist shrine to war dead.

But many will welcome the elevation of the charismatic Mr Hashimoto, who has cultivated an image of himself as a decisive, straight-talking politician along Western lines, in contrast to the anonymous and diplomatically inept leaders represented by Mr Murayama.

How far he will be able to sustain this image is open to doubt. Since his election to the party presidency, he has adopted a much lower profile, and concentrated on cultivating more traditional members in his own party, who regard him as an arrogant upstart.

As well as securing their support, Mr Hashimoto must yield enough to the SDP to hold together the fragile alliance, at least until he can be confident of the LDP's chances at the polls.

The next general election will be the first to be held under a new system, incorporating proportional representation in an attempt to reduce political corruption, a cause of deep uncertainty and concern to Japanese politicians.

One explanation for Mr Murayama's relative longevity as leader was that nobody else in the government was prepared to take on the premiership.

As the eighth Japanese prime minister in seven years, Mr Hashimoto may discover that he has been handed a poison chalice.

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