Mori to take over today

Cabinet resigns as Obuchi recovery seems unlikely

Yoshiro Mori, secretary general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, is expected to be elected prime minister today, as the Cabinet of comatose Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi resigned en masse Tuesday evening.

The ministers resigned at an emergency Cabinet session held at 7 p.m. Tuesday, effectively ending Obuchi’s 20 months in power, acting Prime Minister and Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki said at a news conference.

“We resigned en masse . . . considering Prime Minister Obuchi’s condition and bearing in mind that we cannot neglect the administration of the country for a moment,” Aoki said, reading a government statement.

The ministers, however, will remain in power until the Diet elects a new prime minister today.

Following Tuesday’s move, the LDP is expected to elect Mori to succeed Obuchi as the new party leader this morning, and a new Cabinet led by Mori is expected to be launched later in the day.

Mori, who has already secured wide political support for his expected appointment, is certain to be elected prime minister as the LDP-led coalition still holds a comfortable majority in the Lower House.

Takenori Kanzaki, leader of New Komeito, the LDP’s biggest partner in the ruling coalition, has said that he is willing to work with Mori if he becomes the next prime minister.

The new Cabinet will be backed by the three ruling parties: the LDP, New Komeito and the Conservative Party, which was launched Monday by a splinter group from the Liberal Party.

All the present ministers, except Obuchi, who has been in a coma and breathing with the aid of a respirator at a Tokyo hospital since Sunday night, are expected to be re-appointed, sources said.

Meanwhile, within the LDP, Deputy Secretary General Hiromu Nonaka will be promoted to succeed Mori as secretary general, the sources said.

The resignation of the Cabinet was made compulsory by Article 70 of the Constitution, which stipulates that all Cabinet members must resign when the post of prime minister is vacant.

Aoki said at a separate news conference earlier in the day that he decided to dissolve the Cabinet because Obuchi is unlikely to recover in the near future.

The decision was made after consulting with Obuchi’s doctors, who told him that the 62-year-old prime minister will be unable to understand questions put to him or express his opinions for a while, he said.

Aoki met with the doctors early in the afternoon, when he visited Obuchi at Juntendo University Hospital.

Aoki said he regrets that the Cabinet must step down before realizing an economic recovery, which had been the administration’s top priority. Obuchi was aiming to achieve 0.6 percent growth in fiscal 1999, which ended March 31.

The fact that the Cabinet will not be around for the Group of Eight summit in Okinawa in July is another regret, he added.

Aoki also denied reports that Obuchi is brain-dead.

“That is not true at all. The doctors told me he was not brain-dead, according to results of brain-wave tests at 3 p.m.,” he said.

Obuchi was admitted to the private university hospital around 1 a.m. Sunday after suffering a stroke at his official residence. He was moved to the hospital’s intensive care unit and put on a respirator after his condition worsened Sunday night.

Obuchi took office amid dismal approval ratings in July 1998, and many predicted he would not last long. But the prime minister’s support ratings rose in the first year, after the nation’s economy showed signs of improvement.

He formed a coalition with the conservative Liberal Party in January 1999.

Obuchi also pushed for the passage of a number of key bills, including legislation to strengthen Japan’s security ties with the United States and a bill officially recognizing Japan’s national flag and anthem.

Obuchi breezed through the party’s presidential race in September 1999.

But his popularity began to slide after he admitted the Buddhist-backed New Komeito party into the LDP-LP alliance in October. The alliance gave the prime minister control of over 70 percent of the Lower House and a majority in the House of Councilors.

Support eroded further as a result of a series of recent police scandals and concerns over Japan’s economic recovery.

LDP executives have been busy picking candidates to be the next party president since the news of Obuchi’s serious condition spread on Monday.

LDP officials, especially Mori and Aoki, remained tight-lipped regarding party personnel changes. Mori and Aoki met for half an hour at the Prime Minister’s Official Residence on Tuesday afternoon, but they maintained they were only discussing Obuchi’s condition.

The likelihood that Mori will win the prime minister’s seat became almost certain as his contender, Koichi Kato, a former LDP secretary general, has virtually given up the LDP presidential race.

“In this emergency situation, I think the whole party must put its efforts together without making any internal fuss,” Kato told reporters, implying that he will accept Mori as the new LDP president. Under the parliamentary system, the leader of the largest ruling party normally serves as the prime minister.

Some LDP rank-and-file lawmakers, however, are criticizing the party’s unclear process of picking the nation’s next prime minister.

“It is not at all clear how the decision was made and who is responsible for it. That’s not a democracy,” said Makiko Tanaka, an LDP member and daughter of former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka. “This decision-making process will end up creating a Cabinet even worse than Mr. Obuchi’s.”

Meanwhile, Obuchi’s removal is incurring speculation that the next general election will come sooner than expected.

“We should recognize that the election timing has been accelerated,” said Yukio Hatoyama, head of the Democratic Party of Japan.

Hatoyama added that he believes an election will be held no later than May 10. The decision of when to dissolve the House, the precursor to an election, will be made by the new prime minister.

Some are starting to argue that Obuchi’s hospitalization could appeal to voter’s sympathy and lead to an LDP victory in the next election. The Web site of the Prime Minister’s Official Residence has received hundreds of e-mail messages encouraging Obuchi since Obuchi’s hospitalization.

“There will be sympathy votes (for the LDP),” admits a DPJ senior official. “But politics does not consist of mere sympathy.”