Mori picked while public kept in dark

Yoshiro Mori’s official promotion to prime minister came three days after his predecessor, Keizo Obuchi, suffered a stroke, but top Liberal Democratic Party executives had already discussed the succession issue before Obuchi’s hospitalization was announced to the media.

The transition also exposed serious loopholes in the government’s crisis-management system. The nation effectively lacked a prime minister for more than half a day — between Obuchi’s slide into a coma Sunday evening until Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki became acting prime minister Monday morning.

Masakuni Murakami, chief of the LDP’s Upper House members’ group, was woken by a phone call to his room at the Diet members’ apartment complex at 7 a.m. Sunday.

It was from Aoki, who lives in a downstairs room. in the same complex. “The prime minister is hospitalized. I’m coming up to talk with you,” Aoki said.

Aoki said Obuchi had complained of slight dizziness and had contacted his doctor Saturday evening. He relayed the same information to other top LDP executives.

Obuchi was taken to Juntendo Hospital at 1 a.m., but it was early Sunday morning before Aoki learned of that fact. It had previously been announced to the press that Obuchi had gone to sleep at 11 p.m. Saturday.

From noon Sunday until the small hours of Monday, Aoki met intermittently at a Tokyo hotel with top LDP executives, including Murakami, then-Secretary General Mori, Deputy Secretary General Hiromu Nonaka, policy chief Shizuka Kamei and Diet affairs chief Makoto Koga, according to LDP and government sources.

Aoki visited Obuchi at the hospital around 7 p.m. Sunday. Aoki later told reporters that Obuchi had asked him to serve as acting prime minister if the results of the tests he had undergone warranted it.

Obuchi’s condition reportedly deteriorated after his meeting with Aoki, and he was moved to an intensive care unit after 8 p.m. and placed on an artificial respirator at 9:50 p.m.

The LDP executives gathered at the hotel were informed of Obuchi’s condition and started discussing who should fill his post, according to the sources.

The participants agreed that the successor should be someone who agreed with Obuchi’s policies. Koichi Kato, the former party secretary general who was frequently critical of the prime minister’s heavy spending policies as well as of the LDP’s alliance with New Komeito, was ruled out. Mori’s constant support of the Obuchi administration since its July 1998 inception made him the consensus choice, the sources said.

They also discussed the Cabinet lineup and party executive posts under Mori’s leadership, agreeing that all members of the Obuchi Cabinet should be reappointed.

Nonaka was the natural choice for the post of secretary general, but at one time he suggested that somebody else should take the position — apparently out of concern that people would perceive the Mori administration as being controlled by the Obuchi faction, to which both Nonaka and Aoki belong.

Nonaka eventually accepted the offer and immediately started contacting the LDP’s coalition partners to prepare for the launch of Mori’s administration, the sources said.

All the while, the media — and the public — was kept in the dark. The Cabinet secretariat also falsely informed the press that Obuchi had spent the whole day studying policy matters at his official residence.

In a hastily arranged news conference at 11:30 p.m., Aoki announced that Obuchi had been admitted to a hospital for what he described as exhaustion from overwork, but would not disclose any further information.

At an 11 a.m. news conference Monday, Aoki finally admitted that Obuchi had suffered a stroke, but the seriousness of his condition was not specified.

Aoki revealed the full seriousness of the prime minister’s condition during his second news conference of the day, held at 4 p.m., when he told reporters that Obuchi had slipped into a coma Sunday evening. and was breathing with the help of an artificial respirator.

Aoki admitted that information disclosure over Obuchi’s illness had been inappropriate. He said he had initially been told by doctors that Obuchi’s condition was not serious.

The initial diagnosis by doctors at the hospital was that Obuchi may have had a cerebral infarction, but Obuchi was still able to speak at that time.

Aoki talked with the doctors over the phone and decided that he would wait until test results were available. The LDP executives he consulted were of the same opinion, the sources said.

It is often said in Nagata-cho , the center of Japan’s national politics, that politicians are allowed to lie about their health. In the past, serious health problems of high-ranking officials have often been concealed in the belief this is the best way to avoid major political repercussions.

In Obuchi’s case, however, there was effectively no one capable of exercising prime ministerial authority for 32 hours — especially for the 13 hours after he was put in intensive care — until Aoki stepped in as acting prime minister at 9 a.m. Monday.

The Cabinet Law stipulates that an acting prime minister must be installed if the prime minister has been incapacitated, but does not say who should assume the post.

A vice prime minister — if the Cabinet has one — will normally fill the vacancy, but the Obuchi Cabinet did not.

Apparently mindful of the early criticism, Aoki told a news conference Thursday that the Mori Cabinet should immediately designate which Cabinet official would become acting prime minister in case of emergencies involving the sitting prime minister.

The acting prime minister would take over Mori’s official duties in the event Mori took seriously ill, died or goes on official trips abroad, Aoki said. Government officials said Aoki will be one of the top candidates for the position.