Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori’s decision Friday to accept Chief Cabinet Secretary Hidenao Nakagawa’s resignation was apparently aimed at containing further damage to his administration, which was battered recently over his comments regarding a controversial proposal to North Korea.

The opposition forces, buoyant over Nakagawa’s resignation, are now poised to shift gears in their attack and focus blame on Mori for his “inappropriate” choice for top government spokesman. Even as late as Thursday, Mori was staunch in his defense of Nakagawa.

Ruling Liberal Democratic Party bigwigs are striving to prevent the sparks from Nakagawa’s resignation from burning Mori, insisting that Mori could not have known of his right-hand man’s alleged extramarital affair, which occurred more than five years ago.

But questions linger within the LDP — particularly among the younger members, who freely express their doubt — over whether it is wise for the party to retain Mori as leader until the summer Upper House election.

Lower House member Makiko Tanaka, one of the most vocal critics of the Mori administration, said the recent scandals and blunders reflect so poorly upon Mori that they are “not even worth commenting on.”

Until recently, media surveys showed Mori’s public support was stable — although still low — and had even been inching up.

The LDP-led ruling bloc has practically had its own way since the current Diet session

opened Sept. 21, ignoring an opposition boycott and pushing through its legislative goals, including a controversial amendment to the Upper House electoral system.

The Nakagawa scandal, however, has given the opposition camp plenty of ammunition to throw at the Mori administration. They were quick to jump on rumors of Nakagawa’s extramarital affairs and his suspected ties with a rightist figure after they returned to Diet deliberations last week following a near three-week absence.

Mori has also come under fire over disputed media reports that he was arrested at a brothel while he was a university student more than three decades ago.

Mori and Nakagawa were also criticized recently — even within the ruling bloc — over the prime minister’s latest blunder and the chief Cabinet secretary’s desperate attempts to control the turmoil that followed.

The criticism centered on Mori’s disclosure to British Prime Minister Tony Blair of a proposal that members of Japan’s then-ruling coalition made to North Korea in 1997 regarding Japanese citizens allegedly abducted by Pyongyang agents. The proposal suggested that Pyongyang release the missing in a third country.

Nakagawa earned the ire of his LDP colleagues by initially insisting the proposal was a “personal” offer by Masaaki Nakayama, a member of the 1997 mission. Nakagawa was forced to retract his explanation and attribute the proposal to the coalition mission after fiery protests from Nakayama.

LDP sources say the party wanted to end the furor over the Nakagawa scandal before the submission to the Diet next month of the fiscal 2000 supplementary budget, which aims to further boost the economy.

In light of recent events, however, it remains unclear whether the ruling bloc can expect smooth Diet proceedings.

Opposition lawmakers have said they intend to grill the Mori administration and the LDP over huge sums of money that allegedly went to the party from a scandal-tainted mutual aid organization, KSD, during the 1990s under the guise of party membership fees.

Fukashi Horie, president of Shobi University in Saitama Prefecture, said the resignation of Nakagawa, whom Mori considers to be “almost like his brother,” will be a severe blow to the administration.

The former professor emeritus of politics at Tokyo’s Keio University said Nakagawa had been a good “balancer” between the LDP’s various factions and between the three ruling parties. He said it is not clear whether his successor, Yasuo Fukuda, who lacks Cabinet experience, is up to the task.

“Fukuda may be a hard-working man, but he does not seem to have the kind of interest-coordination skills that Nakagawa had,” Fukuda said. “It cannot be denied that the stability of the Mori Cabinet has begun to waver.”

Horie said that whether Mori remains prime minister until the summer’s Upper House polls will depend on his administration’s performance in the coming two months.

“The first hurdle for Mori will be whether his Cabinet can lift its approval ratings, which began falling (as the Nakagawa scandal unfolded),” he said, adding that Mori must also reshuffle his Cabinet ahead of the reorganization of government ministries and agencies in January.

He said the strength of the new-look Cabinet will depend on whether Mori can create a powerful team without being bound by the party’s factional interests. “If Mori can manage that, without making any more gaffes or scandals, his administration could last until next years’ polls.”

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