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Japan's Perennial Rulers Pick Former Rebel as Leader : Politics: But for first time since 1955, Liberal Democratic Party's chief is not expected to serve as nation's prime minister.

July 31, 1993|SAM JAMESON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — A onetime rebel from Japan's perennial ruling Liberal Democrats was elected president of the party Friday and became its candidate for prime minister.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono, 56, beat former Foreign Minister Michio Watanabe, 70, by a vote of 208 to 159 in balloting among Liberal Democrat prefectural (state) officials and legislators from both houses of Parliament.

But for the first time since the party was formed in 1955, the Liberal Democrats' leader is not expected to win the nation's top job.

That post is expected to go to Morihiro Hosokawa, 55, leader of the Japan New Party, who heads a coalition controlling about 20 more seats than the Liberal Democrats have in the powerful lower house of Parliament. Japan last had a coalition government in 1948. Parliament is scheduled to open next Thursday to vote on a date for choosing one of the two men as Japan's youngest prime minister since 1972. The two share the experience of rebelling against the Liberal Democrats.

"Seventeen years ago, I left the party seeking reform, and I am happy that calls for reform have risen recently," Kono, speaking at a news conference, said of his protest against the party's refusal to reform itself in the wake of the 1976 Lockheed Corp. bribery scandal.

His attempt to establish a second conservative party enjoyed an initial spurt but eventually failed, and he returned to the fold in 1986. But Kono was treated as a pariah by the Liberal Democrats until his mentor, outgoing Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, named him to the Cabinet.

Hosokawa established his own grass-roots party 14 months ago, to protest the inability of both the ruling and opposition parties to carry out reform. He had previously held a Liberal Democrat seat in the upper house for 12 years and been governor of Kumamoto prefecture for eight years.

Kono said his biggest task in leading the Liberal Democrats will be to reform the very nature of the scandal-swamped party, to "rebuild a party that the people can trust" and win the next election, which many expect within a year. If successful, Kono could become prime minister at that time.

Already, he said, the party had taken its first steps toward reform.

Last week, 45 younger legislators forced the older Liberal Democrat leadership to hold an election for the top party post rather than rely on the traditional method of back-room deals among factional bosses, Kono noted. And for the first time, the five factions that normally dominate party decision-making played no significant role in the outcome.

"That I, with no experience of having led a faction, won running against a leader of a large faction is a manifestation of change," Kono said. "Factions are in the process of breaking up."

Kono praised Hosokawa as a leader but condemned Hosokawa's new allies, former Finance Minister Tsutomu Hata and Ichiro Ozawa, a former Liberal Democrat secretary general whose rebellion split the ruling party in June and deprived it of a majority in the lower house election July 18.

He charged that the eight-party coalition will have a "dual structure," with Hosokawa the titular leader and Ozawa the powerbroker.

Kono said "the process by which Hosokawa was chosen was extremely unclear" and challenged Hosokawa to explain how he was named and to make the coalition's policies clear in a Parliament debate.

Hosokawa said he wants to convene a session of Parliament in September to enact electoral and political reform by October.

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