Who'll Emerge From Tokyo's Smoky Back Rooms?

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The secret playoff is on for a successor to Ryutaro Hashimoto as the next Japanese prime minister. Whoever he is -- and there is a short list of front-runners, none of whom have Hashimoto's dynamic reputation -- he'll come from the ranks of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. And that's part of Japan's conundrum. Traditionally, there has been no serious alternative to the LDP. The Japanese public has been willing to elect members of rival parties into the weak Upper House as a form of protest, as they did on Sunday, but they're still reluctant to put opposition candidates behind the wheel of real power in the dominant Lower House.

That leaves the LDP's old-boy network, as the Japanese themselves call it, to gather in the back rooms and pick the politico who'll try to restore the world's second largest economy to its former self. Do the Japanese need a better way? Perhaps, and eventually they may vote themselves into a real two-party system. But for now their prime minister will be selected by the leaders of the LDP's numerous factions, using their own private power-and-favor calculus. Meanwhile, voters are displaying little willingness to endure the tough measures -- such as pulling the props from under inefficient industries -- that economists believe are required to rev up Asia's engine again. And with Japan's whole political system stacked against radical change, it may take an extraordinary leader to make the necessary hard choices -- someone the smoky back room isn't designed to produce.