Staff writer

As his popularity rating continues to decline, the outlook for Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto seems bleak, but Hashimoto may still be in his position as late as next year, according to political experts.

“It is partly because of the absence of an adequate replacement in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (which Hashimoto heads),” said Yasunori Sone, a professor at Keio University. Foreign Minister Keizo Obuchi, former Chief Cabinet Secretary Seiroku Kajiyama and LDP Secretary General Koichi Kato have been mentioned as possible successors to Hashimoto, but so far no one has come out openly against him.

In Nagata-cho, the heart of the nation’s politics, Obuchi, who heads the LDP’s largest faction, is seen as the most likely candidate to replace the prime minister. “But he is not attractive enough as the nation’s new leader, who should have stronger leadership qualities than Hashimoto,” said Fusao Ushiro, a Nagoya University professor. Echoing Ushiro’s view, Sone said it seems unlikely that Japan’s ailing economy would start showing signs of recovery if Obuchi were to take office.

Hashimoto has fought an uphill economic battle since last fall, when the nation’s financial markets were hit by turbulence following the collapse of two large financial institutions and other smaller ones. Opposition members — and even some in the LDP — have strongly criticized Hashimoto, saying his policy failures have caused the worst recession in decades.

Support ratings of his Cabinet fell to 28.5 percent, another new low, in the latest survey by Jiji Press. The disapproval rate hit a record high of 47.7 percent. The figures are considered to reflect the continuing economic slump.

Hashimoto has just a few comrades and followers in the LDP, unlike other key LDP figures. He has also lost much of the support of the business community. Nevertheless, Hashimoto should remain at the helm at least until the fall, partly because of his skill in foreign affairs, which is often said to be much better than his abilities at domestic affairs, some observers said.

Hashimoto is expected to accept an invitation from U.S. President Bill Clinton to visit Washington in July. Another indicator that Hashimoto may remain in office longer is the upcoming Upper House election. Half of the seats in the 252-seat chamber are contested every three years. For the LDP, 61 seats will be contested in July. “Hashimoto is certain to remain in power if the LDP wins a majority in the chamber by securing 69 seats or more,” Ushiro said.

If the LDP suffers a setback in the election and obtains less than 61 seats, Hashimoto’s responsibility as LDP president could be called into question. It is widely believed that he would face pressure to resign in that event. “However, it seems highly unlikely,” Sone said. “This is because the voter turnout for the election is expected to be very low again.” The corresponding turnout figure was less than 45 percent for the last Upper House election in July 1995.

Low turnouts usually benefit the LDP, Komei and the Japanese Communist Party, all of which have strong, organized voter bases. “In addition, Japanese people do not exercise retrospective voting, in which voters choose political parties they support by reviewing what the parties have done,” Sone said.

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