Japan's ruling party tries not to panic: LDP thinks it might help if the Prime Minister were dead

JAPAN'S governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) would be better off if the Prime Minister, Kiichi Miyazawa, dropped dead, according to a cabinet minister. 'If by any chance Mr Miyazawa dies, then the LDP will win a landslide victory,' said Kabun Muto, the Foreign Minister, in a speech in Tokyo yesterday.

Mr Miyazawa, whose popularity rating has fallen to just 9 per cent, is taking much of the blame for the bungled no-confidence vote last Friday, when a revolt within the LDP split the party and caused the government to fall. As a 'lame duck' prime minister he is, linguistically, already dead - in Japanese he is described as a shinitai, or dead body. And political commentators have been picking over his meagre political record like vultures in the desert.

Nobody is actually urging Mr Miyazawa to commit honourable suicide - yet. But Mr Muto's blend of black humour and underlying panic neatly encapsulated the mood of the LDP as it tried to plan its counterattack against the rebel faction.

On the one hand, party elders do not want to lend the rebels respectability by being seen to take them too seriously. But at the same time they now realise that the defection last Friday of Tsutomu Hata, a former finance minister, and 34 other Lower House members of the LDP threatens to end nearly four decades of single- party rule, and change Japan's political landscape beyond all recognition.

Mr Hata's defection became official yesterday when he and 43 other LDP members from the two houses of the Diet (parliament) resigned from the ruling party. Mr Hata is expected to announce the establishment of his own party today, and he is actively courting all the main opposition parties except the Communists in an attempt to build an anti-LDP coalition.

Mr Miyazawa has poured scorn on the idea of such a coalition by highlighting the extreme left-wing views of some members of the biggest opposition party, the Socialists, which most voters could not accept. But not many people want to listen to Mr Miyazawa these days.

A graduate of the prestigious law faculty of Tokyo University and an able bureaucrat who worked his way up the Ministry of Finance, Mr Miyazawa was made Prime Minister in October 1991. He pledged to turn Japan into a 'life-style superpower' and to make the country more open to the outside world. It has been a long fall to his current standing.

Despite his fluency in English - a rarity among Japanese politicians - and his understanding of how government ministries work, Mr Miyazawa showed little leadership ability and has few achievements of his own to show, either on the international or the domestic front. House prices are still astronomically high for most salaried workers, despite his pledge to put house ownership within everyone's reach. And the all-important US-Japan relationship is more strained than it has been for years.

Mr Miyazawa's real downfall, however, was his lack of skill in the inter- faction bargaining within the LDP: the so-called backroom deals where real power is exercised in Japanese politics. His prime ministership was initially backed by the arch- manoeuvrer, Shin Kanemaru. But when the LDP's godfather was disgraced in the Sagawa bribery scandal last year, Mr Miyazawa no longer had a protector in the party. If Mr Kanemaru were still around, the vote of no confidence would never have been allowed to take place.

When Mr Muto made his remark about Mr Miyazawa's death, business leaders in the audience laughed. He was alluding to the death of another prime minister, Masayoshi Ohira, after he lost a no confidence vote in 1980. This sparked a huge sympathy vote, and the LDP was returned with a substantial majority. But if the current elections go as expected, and the LDP loses its majority for the first time in 38 years, Mr Miyazawa may be wishing he was dead.

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