Japan's Prime Minister Dilemma

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TOKYO, Japan: All eyes are on Keizo Obuchi as Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party gets ready to select the country's next prime minister Friday afternoon. The foreign minister has the support of the LDP's largest faction, which has strong-armed about 200 lawmakers into publicly backing him. (He needs 207 votes to win the job.) "They want to will his election into reality. But it might not be that easy. There's a lot of behind-the-scenes deal-making. And some of the 200 who have said they would vote for Obuchi might not do so Friday," says TIME Tokyo bureau chief Frank Gibney Jr. The two other candidates, Health Minister Junichiro Koizumi and former cabinet secretary Seiroku Kajiyama, are scrambling to corral enough votes to force a runoff election.

The well-connected but publicly unpopular Obuchi will have his work cut out for him should he get the nod. His election "would send a message that a fix was in and that the LDP expects to continue business as usual -- that it can run Japan as it always has," says Gibney. That leaves the LDP in a terrible bind: His ascendancy would rattle the already jittery financial markets and further weaken the LDP's dismal approval ratings. Yet he's the party's best hope for unity. The smoke signals from the back rooms may soon be saying SOS.