A no-confidence motion against the Cabinet of Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori was expected to be voted down early this morning in the Lower House after Koichi Kato, the leader of a rebel faction in the ruling party, decided to abstain at the last minute.

Kato said he was not sure he could secure enough votes from his supporters in the Liberal Democratic Party to back the opposition-sponsored motion.

His late flip-flop came to the relief of the mainstream LDP factions as it averted what appeared to be an imminent breakup of the party.

The move also surprised the Diet because Kato and his ally Taku Yamasaki, who heads another LDP faction, had been publicly saying they would vote for the no-confidence motion and had expressed “100 percent” confidence it would pass.

Despite the reversal, emotions ran high and the plenary session of the Lower House was thrown into confusion during the evening when Kenshiro Matsunami of the New Conservative Party, a junior coalition partner, emptied a glass of water from the podium on opposition members seated below.

Matsunami was apparently angered by insulting remarks the opposition camp was making while he was speaking against the motion.

Opposition members harshly protested the gesture, and Lower House Speaker Tamisuke Watanuki ordered Matsunami to leave the session. The Democratic Party of Japan, however, remained unhappy with Watanuki’s handling of the matter and submitted a no-confidence motion against Watanuki.

The session was suspended and later scheduled to resume at 10 minutes after midnight, but lawmakers had not returned as of 1:20.

Kato held a faction meeting earlier in the evening and told his supporters he didn’t want to jeopardize their political careers. LDP leaders had been threatening to revoke party membership of anyone who voted for the no-confidence motion.

“Unfortunately, the prospect for success is very delicate,” he said, “and I cannot make my colleagues make such a heavy sacrifice. For now, we will retreat in honor and save our power.”

LDP Secretary General Hiromu Nonaka, who leads the party’s mainstream force, had been maintaining he would automatically strike Kato and Yamasaki off the LDP’s roster unless they voluntarily left the party by Monday noon.

Nevertheless, Kato and Yamasaki appeared to be standing their ground, saying they would back the no-confidence motion and rejecting calls from party leaders to leave on their own accord.

After the deadline came and went, Nonaka remained undecided about whether to jettison the rebel leaders, saying he would wait while Sadatoshi Ozato, chairman of the LDP’s Executive Council and a member of the Kato faction, tried to persuade Kato to compromise.

Nonaka and Ozato had several meetings in the afternoon, and Ozato shuttled between Nonaka and Kato as a mediator.

At 5:45 p.m., four opposition parties — the Democratic Party of Japan, the Japanese Communist Party, the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party — submitted the no-confidence motion.

About half an hour before the Lower House plenary session convened at 9 p.m. to debate the motion, Kato and Yamasaki appeared before reporters and said they and their faction members would all abstain from voting.

The LDP’s mainstream elements and their junior coalition partners — New Komeito and the New Conservative Party — together hold 208 seats in the 480-seat Lower House; the opposition has 190.

With the Kato and Yamasaki factions now saying they will sit out the vote, the motion appeared doomed.

Kato is a 61-year-old former LDP secretary general. His faction is the LDP’s second-largest.

A diplomat-turned-lawmaker who was the runnerup to the late Keizo Obuchi in last year’s LDP presidential race, Kato was at one time widely expected to take over from Mori, possibly after the Upper House election next summer.

But with approval ratings of the Mori Cabinet in newspaper polls dipping dangerously below 20 percent, Kato took action on his own — rather than wait for his turn to wipe up the mess Mori leaves behind.

Party leaders stunned

Leaders of major political parties were taken aback Monday night after two senior members of the Liberal Democratic Party — Koichi Kato and Taku Yamasaki — retracted their pledge to support a no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori’s Cabinet, ensuring the motion’s defeat.

Takenori Kanzaki, leader of one the LDP’s junior coalition partners, New Komeito, said Kato’s and Yamasaki’s sudden about-face was “anticlimactic.”

The two leaders of the rebel LDP factions decided to skip the House of Representatives plenary session shortly before it opened to vote on the motion. The decision follows a fierce campaign by leading LDP lawmakers to woo supporters to their side for the vote.

The motion was submitted by four opposition parties — the Democratic Party of Japan, the Liberal Party, the Japanese Communist Party, and the Social Democratic Party.

“I guess they decided to avoid shedding blood in vain after learning they would surely lose. Now it’s up to the LDP to handle the matter, so we will just watch the situation from outside,” Kanzaki said.

DPJ leader Yukio Hatoyama said Kato and Yamasaki “disliked the idea of quitting the LDP at the last minute.”

Kato “failed to show sufficient determination,” Hatoyama said. “I think the LDP will face a huge loss (in next year’s House of Councilors election) as he (Kato) behaved as if he were king of the mountain in the LDP. There was a great deal of fuss . . . (and not much came of it).”

Liberal Party leader Ichiro Ozawa called the retreat of Kato and Yamasaki “the greatest disappointment since the establishment of constitutional government.”

“What has he (Kato) been doing up to now?” Ozawa asked. “He should be ashamed at having lost the battle.”

Said Hirohisa Fujii, secretary general of the Liberal Party: “People will severely chastise the ruling party as it has betrayed them so harshly. It will have the whole world against it. It’s pathetic.”

JCP Presidium Chairman Tetsuzo Fuwa said the LDP has been “cracked” by the conflict and that he expects demands for Mori’s resignation to grow.

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