Right-winger ready for power bid in Japan

A NEW figure is emerging as a challenger for the leadership of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and by extension for the prime ministership.

Hiroshi Mitsuzuka, 65, is a straight talker and not afraid of airing his views on changing the constitution - Japan's hottest political topic today.

Mr Mitsuzuka, who has been a member of parliament for 20 years and has headed his own faction since 1991, owes his new prominence largely to patience. For years the powerful Takeshita faction dominated the LDP, and its gruff behind-the-scenes leader, Shin Kanemaru, had the final say on who was to be prime minister.

But now that Mr Kanemaru has been forced to resign by the Sagawa scandal and the faction has virtually self-destructed, Mr Mitsuzuka suddenly finds himself head of the largest remaining faction. In 1991 he lost the race for the prime ministership to Kiichi Miyazawa because of a decision by Mr Kanemaru. This autumn, when the post comes up again, Mr Miyazawa will not have such a protector around to help him.

Last week Mr Mitsuzuka gave a speech titled 'Political Reform'. This is a trendy subject for politicians, as the electorate is becoming increasingly cynical about the corrupt activities and links with gangsters that characterise their elected representatives.

Mr Mitsuzuka dutifully said that Japanese politicians should be forced by law to report all the monetary contributions they receive, and that the electoral system should be changed to single- seat constituencies to reduce the money spent on campaigns. But he did not sound entirely convincing on the need for reform.

The Sagawa scandal, for example, which involved millions of pounds in kickbacks to politicians, and revealed close links between LDP leaders and a crime syndicate, hardly interested him. It was already over, he said, and was of interest 'only to academics'.

Japanese voters might think otherwise, but the LDP's dominance of the political system is such that Mr Mitsuzuka can afford to focus more on the factional politics within the party than on the opinions of voters. And as far as the LDP is concerned, the Sagawa scandal is over, with Mr Kanemaru offered as sacrificial victim.

What Mr Mitsuzuka really wanted to talk about was an amendment to the constitution, a favourite topic of Japan's right- wingers. With the country's main foreign policy goal - permanent membership of the UN Security Council - apparently out of reach as long as Japan is unable to use its troops in UN peace-keeping operations, a growing number of politicians are daring to call for a revision of the constitution. Written by General McArthur's administrators immediately after the Second World War, it contains a provision under which Japan forever renounces the use of force to settle international disputes.

Mr Mitsuzuka's way round that was straightforward: 'It is easy: all we have to do is add a third section saying the previous paragraphs do not apply when the United Nations makes a decision (to send peace-keepers).' But given the resistance among the general public and a significant number of MPs to any change to the constitution, Mr Mitsuzuka's 'easy way' may be delayed.

Meanwhile, he will have his hands full with everyday matters: the factional manoeuvring within the leaderless LDP. Mr Miyazawa's popularity has never been high - polls now give him a favourable rating of 30 per cent, but he has been as low as 12 per cent - and with the factions in turmoil, the time may be ripe for Mr Mitsuzuka's power bid.

The Foreign Minister, Michio Watanabe, bowing to cabinet pressure, said yesterday that Japan should not try to change the constitution to enable its troops to play a more active role in UN operations, AFP reports.

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