Japan's new leader has last laugh

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THE MORNING before Tomiichi Murayama was elected the first Socialist Prime Minister of Japan in 46 years, officials at the Foreign Ministry were still scoffing at the left-winger's chances of getting the job.

The foreign-educated bureaucrats roared with laughter at the latest joke in the ministry: that Mr Muryama, aged 70, a labour leader with no ministerial experience, had been spotted in a bookshop looking for a Japanese-language guide-book to Naples. He thought he might need it for . . . the Group of Seven summit next week] It was really too funny for words: imagine a man who feels an ideological affinity for the fanatic Communism of North Korea presiding over the world's second-biggest capitalist economy.

Now the joke is on the diplomats, who have one week to put together credible briefing papers for the Prime Minister before he goes to meet his counterparts at the G7 summit in Naples. And somehow they have to reconcile Mr Murayama's ascendancy with his partners in the bizarre new government - the very same conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that spent four decades pouring vitriol on his Socialists.

Japanese of all shades of political opinion woke up yesterday morning to a feeling of unreality - as if someone had dropped an outrageous clanger at a polite dinner party, and was then too embarrassed to take it all back. Surely there must have been some mistake in the previous night's vote in the Diet? But no - there, on the front pages of their morning newspapers, was a picture of the shaggy- eyebrowed Mr Murayama, the new Prime Minister of Japan.

How this extraordinary situation came to pass is a tale of political intrigue, resistance to changes in a comfortable status quo, and ultimate cynicism towards voters. What it means for the future of Japanese politics is unclear, beyond a further dose of the latest political catchword: konran (confusion).

The biggest worry for those backing reform of Japan's corrupt, faction-ridden political system is that a coalition of the two parties that benefited most from the old system will set back the movement towards a new system. The only thing that Mr Murayama's Socialists and his LDP bedfellows have in common is a deep suspicion of reform - particularly of new electoral laws proposed by the government of Tsutomu Hata before it resigned last week. These laws would do away with multi-seat constituencies, which in theory should limit the old pork-barrel system of money politics. It is highly likely that Mr Murayama will either scrap the new electoral system completely or tinker with it in such a way that the old votes-for-favours system will be somehow preserved.

The LDP and the Socialists also share reservations on economic deregulation: leaders of both parties cut their political teeth in the days when Japan was still struggling to catch up with the West by exporting at any cost, and have yet to come to terms with the idea that Japan cannot enjoy huge trade surpluses indefinitely. Indeed, the yen soared against the dollar after Mr Murayama was elected, as the market presumed there would be no progress on US-Japan trade talks under the new government. Ichiro Ozawa, architect of political reform for the past year, yesterday offered to resign to take responsibility for the enormous setback his plans have suffered at Mr Murayama's hands.

But however much Mr Murayama and his crew can delay reforms while in office, when the next elections come the Socialists may discover they have swallowed a poison pill. For the past four decades, people have voted for the Socialists often as a protest against the corrupt, corporate interests of the LDP, and not because they necessarily favoured the more whacky left- wing policies of the Socialists themselves. Now the Socialists have sold themselves to the LDP for a quick twirl in the limelight of power, they can no longer pose as the watchdog of power's abuses.