Rebels' leader prepares to make bid for power in Japan: Hata cultivates Socialists but says they must abandon radical policies

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TSUTOMU HATA, the leader of the rebel faction within Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), seemed yesterday to be on the verge of forging an electoral pact with the main opposition party, the Socialists, which could make him the country's next prime minister. Mr Hata leads a group of 35 LDP rebels who turned against the government in a no confidence vote last Friday, plunging Japanese politics into turmoil.

Emergency sirens were blaring in the headquarters of the LDP in Tokyo as party officials tried to regroup their forces in the face of the most serious threat to their power in four decades. As a sign of their desperation the party unceremoniously ditched Noboru Takeshita, a former prime minister, from its list of candidates for the next elections. With calls for political reform coming from all sides, Mr Takeshita's link with financial scandals and right-wing mobsters was thought to be a dangerous liability to the party's image in the upcoming polls. He will run as an independent candidate.

Mr Hata's rebel group is expected to form its own party officially tomorrow. Another splinter group of 10 LDP members, who say they want to clean up politics after a string of corruption and gangster scandals, yesterday announced they were setting up their own party, the Sakigake, or pioneer party.

But attention is now focused on Mr Hata and the extent to which he can build political alliances against the LDP's formidable vote-gathering power. Mr Hata has said he hopes to field 100 of his own candidates for the 511 seats in the Diet (parliament), and will need strong support from other parties if he is to offer any real alternative to the LDP. His main target is the Socialists, who have 140 Diet seats, compared to the 278 seats of the LDP (before Friday's split).

In a speech to the central executive committee of the Socialist Party yesterday, Sadao Yamahana, the party leader, indicated that he would back Mr Hata for the prime minister's job after the next elections. This is an important endorsement for Mr Hata's faction, since they would lose a lot of their reformist appeal if they had to play second fiddle to the Socialists.

But still there will be problems in the alliance. A strong left-wing group within the party has managed to block any change in a series of radical policies most voters find unrealistic for modern Japan. For example, the Socialists still officially support North Korea against the South and are opposed to nuclear power, and to the upkeep of any military force at all.

Mr Hata has said that the Socialists must abandon these policies for any coalition to work. Analysts say it is more likely that the party will split into a left-wing fragment and a larger, more centrist group with whom Mr Hata could come to terms. The secretary-general of the Socialists, Hirotaka Akamatsu, described the radicals in his party as a 'facial mole' that could be 'surgically removed'.

The LDP, which knows its best chance of survival is to divide the opposition, yesterday jumped on the archaic left-wing policies of the Socialists. The Prime Minister, Kiichi Miyazawa, said their positions on defence, energy and foreign affairs were 'unrealistic'. Seeking to downplay Mr Hata's faction, he said: 'I am not able to leave Japanese politics to Japan's largest opposition party.' However, Mr Miyazawa is under threat, with a 9 per cent popularity rating.