Leading Article: The sun sets on another PM

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THOSE who complain of drift inside the Tory party should give thanks that they do not live in Tokyo. This week, Japan will see its third prime minister in two months. Its warring parties make fleeting alliances only for short-term political advantage. Fundamental issues of policy remain undecided, including tax reform and Japan's response to the nuclear threat in North Korea. Even the shape of the electoral system itself is uncertain, since nobody can tell whether the current multi-member constituencies will be reformed into oblivion this autumn.

Although the current crisis was precipitated by a voters' revolt against 38 years of Liberal Democratic Party rule, its underlying roots lie in social change. Japan is too rich and powerful a nation for a single party, however ideologically flexible, to run it. The conflicting interests of the country's subsidised rural farmers and the overworked office workers in its cramped cities require that elections should offer real policy choices - which only a system of two or three parties can deliver.

The fall of Tsutomu Hata, premier for a mere 57 days, illustrates the difficulties the parties have had in evolving clear policy platforms. The most consistent, paradoxically, has been the stubborn Shakaito, or socialist party, which is anti-American, opposed to the higher indirect taxes that most observers consider essential to balance the public budget, and instinctively sympathetic to the Stalinist government in North Korea. But voters themselves are having trouble coming to terms with politicians who know what they think: Ichiro Ozawa, the kingmaker behind the latest coalition government, is at once admired and mistrusted for his forthright views on where Japan should go.

Mr Hata's resignation is likely to usher in a new coalition whose future must remain as doubtful as that of its predecessor. His decision to step down was greeted with satisfaction by a majority of parliamentarians - not least because it will save them the inconvenience of fighting an election. But it is less clear that avoiding an election is in the voters' interests. Even under a distorted system, an election could help to clarify where voters stand on economic policy, North Korea, and on the cynical manoeuvrings of the socialist party.

The delegates to next week's G7 meeting should be in no doubt, however, that stable government in Tokyo is in the rest of the world's interests. Japan is not merely a vast and potentially growing market for industrial exports; properly managed, it could also be a force for good in global affairs.