Rebels get their fingers burnt as LDP rallies: Japan's new party losing credibility

BARELY a fortnight after a sudden mutiny left the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in tatters, the ruling party is pulling itself together and its fortunes are improving, with some political commentators now speculating that it will form the next government. The party will not win an absolute majority in the 511-member parliament but the opposition is in such disarray that the LDP might be able to cobble together a workable coalition to keep it in power.

Two weeks ago most of Japan was glued to television sets to watch the no-confidence motion being voted on in parliament, when 55 LDP members, led by Tsutomu Hata, a former finance minister, voted against the government or abstained, bringing down prime minister Kiichi Miyazawa's administration and starting a forest fire in Japanese politics. This was widely seen as an inferno which would consume the LDP and Japan's idiosyncratic style of politics.

Amid much fanfare, Mr Hata set up the Shinsei Party, or 'Japan Renewal Party'. Change was in the air - but politics, like a forest fire, is treacherous. The fire is still burning, but the wind has changed direction.

'Just after the dissolution the wind was for Hata, very strongly,' said Takashi Tachibana, a writer and political commentator. 'But now it has changed.' Mr Tachibana says there are two reasons for the cooling of enthusiasm for Mr Hata and his Renewal Party.

The speed with which the Socialists, formerly the largest opposition party, agreed to go into coalition with Mr Hata has discredited them in the eyes of many of their supporters, who cannot see how a nominally left- wing party can suddenly jump into bed with former arch-rivals from the LDP. This caused the Socialists to lose heavily in municipal elections in Tokyo last weekend, and since then the Socialist party has tried to distance itself from Mr Hata.

At the same time, the past is coming back to haunt Mr Hata and Ichiro Ozawa, the real power within the Renewal Party. Both were members of the infamous Takeshita faction while in the LDP, which had refined the art of money politics to a degree that was extraordinary even for Japan. Mr Ozawa is widely seen as a direct political descendant of some of the most spectacularly corrupt men in Japanese politics: former prime minister Kakuei Tanaka, indicted for the Lockheed scandal, former prime minister Noboru Takeshita, felled by the Recruit scandal, and Shin Kanemaru, LDP powerbroker who was disgraced in the recent Sagawa scandal. 'People are starting to reflect on the Tanaka links. And it won't go away,' said Mr Tachibana.

There are more than two weeks to go before the elections. But perhaps sensing that his party was starting to flag, Mr Ozawa made a rare television appearance yesterday. 'People say we should account for our past actions, that we are tainted,' he said. 'But I could have made a compromise with the other factions and survived within the LDP. Anyway it is not up to me, it is up to the voters.'