Japan's clean team fishes for a heavyweight: Musical chairs in cabinet mark an end to Cold War politics, writes Terry McCarthy in Tokyo

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THE PACE of Japan's political realignment accelerated yesterday after Michio Watanabe, the leader of an important faction in the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), threatened to defect to the governing coalition. In exchange for splitting the LDP, Mr Watanabe would like the coalition to make him the next prime minister, to replace Morihiro Hosokawa, who resigned a week ago because of a financial scandal.

Politics in Japan has become like televised basketball. The viewers avidly follow the live broadcasts with their rapid switches in the direction of play and constant changes in who is holding the ball. News programmes submit a long line of breathless correspondents, fresh with the latest political rumour. Not even the main political protagonists are now sure how the confusion will be resolved.

But underneath the bewildering manoeuvres, back-passes and loop shots, there is a gradual shift towards a new political pattern. This is inspired by younger politicians.

They want Japan, in the words of Ichiro Ozawa, the movement's driving force, to become a 'normal country', which will play a full role in the international community, while guaranteeing its citizens a lifestyle which rewards their diligence in the workplace.

But to achieve this, the two relics of the country's Cold War party politics - the right-wing LDP and its left-wing counterweight, the Socialists - are in the process of being marginalised. The possible defection of Mr Watanabe, the former foreign minister, has been rumoured for weeks.

He has been careful to emphasise that he shares the reformist goals of the coalition government, which deposed the LDP last summer after 38 years of power. Yesterday he had talks with Yohei Kono, the President of the LDP, who tried to stop Mr Watanabe from leaving the party. Although no final decision was reached, it appears just a matter of time before Mr Watanabe links up with the governing coalition.

Mr Watanabe claimed that his 'major concerns' were the budget bill, stalled in the Diet (parliament), and measures to revive the economy.

'I want to save the nation from this political crisis,' he said, after his meeting with Mr Kono. But commentators were quick to describe Mr Watanabe's moves as a straightforward grab for power. It is probably the last chance the 70- year-old will get at the prime ministership. Mr Watanabe last year underwent treatment for a serious illness, and he is still frail.

The critical issue surrounding Mr Watanabe's decision to defect will be how many LDP members he can bring with him. His faction contains 45 members, and it is not clear that they will all follow him. The headcount will become important in the formation of the next government, since the inclusion of the conservative Mr Watanabe in the coalition will almost certainly mean the simultaneous departure of the Socialists, with 74 seats.

Mr Ozawa, the chief strategist of the coalition, last night was doing his sums carefully. He will have been heartened by the defection of a small group of five LDP members yesterday, and the likelihood that another five will leave over the weekend. His first strategy was to keep the coalition together until elections under the reformed voting system could be called. Now events are moving more quickly than he had foreseen.

Instead of a slow dribble towards the basket, his team may be about to land a long shot from the touchline. Either way, the reformers are advancing and the defenders - the LDP and the Socialists - appear even more desperate.