TOKYO: Only hours after lawmakers elected Ryutaro Hashimoto prime minister, the agressive new Japanese leader was challenged for the top job by his chief rival, Ichiro Ozawa. Ozawa called for new elections to put Hashimoto's government to a popular vote. The vote could occur anytime between April and the end of 1997. "Hashimoto's Liberal Democratic Party is eager to avoid elections for the time being, but Ozawa is pressing hard for them," reports Tokyo bureau chief Edward Desmond. "There have been four governments since the 1993 elections, and the press and many politicians feel that it's time for a fresh popular mandate." Even if the highly popular Hashimoto manages to put off elections, Japanese politics will likely be dominated by Ozawa's opposition to Hashimoto's economic policies, beginning with the prime minister's plan to use $6.5 billion in taxpayer money to rescue failed housing lenders. But Desmond cautions that the coming clash will be over polices and not, as some analysts have said, personalities: "This is not Hashimoto versus Ozawa in a battle to the death. They will go compete, although no one knows how hard, but they are not personal enemies, as some papers are claiming. In fact, Ozawa has been trying to woo Hashimoto in the past to join him."