Keizo Obuchi, who looked like a paragon of health as prime minister, suddenly collapsed last week when he suffered a stroke and was replaced by LDP Secretary General Yoshiro Mori. The episode made me think of a saying often quoted in the Japanese political world: “The future is all darkness.”

I have little doubt that Mori was well-qualified to succeed Obuchi. However, the circumstances surrounding his appointment appear to suggest that his Cabinet will serve as a mere caretaker government until a general election is held. The Lower House must be dissolved for an election before the current members complete their terms in October.

Mori has little experience in high-profile diplomacy and economic management. His future as the nation’s top political leader will hinge on his performance in the coming months. Although his name is not exactly a household word, he could transform himself into an enterprising leader, as did Obuchi.

Mori’s challenge will be to dissolve the Lower House at the most opportune time for the ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party, New Komeito and the Conservative Party, which was launched by a splinter group of the Liberal Party when the latter bolted the governing alliance over policy differences.

While the Obuchi Cabinet was in power, few doubted that the Lower House would be dissolved after Japan hosts the Group of Eight summit in Okinawa in July. However, there is now growing speculation that the election will be held in June.

Political pundits cite these reasons for an early election:

* Following a series of police scandals, popularity ratings for the Obuchi Cabinet plunged. An early general election could have caused a devastating loss for the LDP and endangered the political survival of the administration. Obuchi preferred to hold the election after chairing the high-profile summit. But Obuchi’s sudden collapse has stirred voters’ sympathy, and the sooner the election is held, the more political advantage the LDP will have. Obuchi’s fall is reminiscent of Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira’s sudden death in 1980 during a campaign for a general election, which the LDP won decisively.

* A recent Kyodo News poll showed the approval rating for the Mori Cabinet was 43 percent, higher than the rating announced after the Obuchi Cabinet’s inauguration.

* Pressure from LP leader Ichiro Ozawa, who often caused trouble for the ruling coalition by repeatedly threatening to leave, no longer exists. Now it would be easy for the LDP to cooperate with the Conservative Party in the election. Depending on circumstances, the LDP could eventually merge with the Conservative Party.

The LDP could be wrong in its calculations, however.

The same Kyodo News poll showed that only 25 percent of the respondents supported the ruling coalition of the LDP, New Komeito and the Conservative Party; 54 percent did not. This appears to indicate that the majority of Japanese disapprove of the Mori-led coalition. There are widespread public perceptions that New Komeito — controlled by the lay Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai — played a pivotal role in the inauguration of the Mori administration and is bound to have even more influence on the government.

Various polls show that many Japanese resent New Komeito’s religious connection. The LDP believes the new governing coalition will be able to exploit New Komeito’s strong voter base in the election.

The question is whether the Mori government’s policies will meet public expectations. I am seriously concerned by the fact that Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki deceived the public regarding Obuchi’s collapse, saying he was hospitalized with fatigue. In the meantime, Mori, former Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiromu Nonaka, LDP policy chief Shizuka Kamei and other party officials held a secret meeting. Aoki appointed himself as acting prime minister, paving the way for the inauguration of the Mori administration.

Aoki should clarify his responsibility for the affair. Otherwise, the Mori administration will remain covered by a dark cloud.

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