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Foreign Minister Yohei Kono and former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto will emerge as the favorites to succeed Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori when the likelihood of his resignation increases come spring or summer, according to a veteran political analyst.

“I’d say Kono will become the strongest candidate if the Liberal Democratic Party decides to move forward its presidential election, while Hashimoto is likely to replace Mori when the LDP suffers a devastating loss in next summer’s House of Councilors election,” Minoru Morita said Thursday at the Foreign Press Center in Tokyo.

Morita indicated that February, when the House of Representatives Budget Committee is scheduled to hold talks, will be a crucial time for Mori because members of the LDP, which he heads, could plot his Cabinet’s downfall by leaking scandalous information about him.

The analyst also said many LDP members are eager to oust Mori, whose support remains low, because they are aware the party may suffer a humiliating setback in the Upper House poll if he stays on.

The LDP could decide at its convention in late March to move up to April the presidential election, which is scheduled for September. In that case, Kono will be the only favorable candidate, Morita said.

“In the previous Upper House election in July 1998, Hashimoto had to resign immediately to take the blame for a major defeat the party suffered. Thus, he is unlikely to run in the LDP presidential race before the Upper House poll takes place,” Morita said.

“If the LDP doesn’t hold a presidential election and its leader changes after the Upper House poll, Kono and Hashimoto will then be on par, but I suppose Hashimoto will prevent Kono’s attempts to assume the presidency,” he said.

Hashimoto, currently serving as state minister in charge of administrative reform and Okinawa issues, is the leader of the LDP’s largest faction, while Kono heads a small intraparty group.

The two possible Mori successors, both aged 63, formerly vied for the party presidency, which usually comes with the prime minister’s post because the LDP is the largest ruling party.

In 1996, Hashimoto emerged as a party presidential candidate and blocked Kono’s bid to be re-elected.

Kono is the only person who has served as LDP president but not become prime minister. He was elected the party head in 1993 after the LDP was forced into the opposition, but when the party returned to power in 1994, Tomiichi Murayama, chairman of the Social Democratic Party, the LDP’s then coalition partner and previous arch rival, became prime minister.

Morita also said next summer’s Upper House election would be “a starting point for a major political shakeup in Japan,” because it is unlikely that the current tripartite coalition of the LDP, New Komeito and the New Conservative Party will be able to maintain a combined majority in the chamber.

“If the coalition cannot pass bills through the upper chamber, it would collapse or search for another partner,” he said. “Either way, a major political realignment would occur with some forces within the LDP leaving the party.”

Morita predicted that Koichi Kato and Taku Yamasaki, who launched an unsuccessful bid to oust Mori late last month, could split from the LDP next summer and join hands with the opposition camp to try to take power.

Morita suggested that followers of the two rebellious LDP faction leaders could stand up and voluntarily leave the party because they will suffer continuous discrimination for their actions if they choose to stay in the LDP.

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