Former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi died last Sunday, 42 days after suffering a stroke and falling into a coma. He was 62.

When he took power in the summer of 1998, he was derided by Japanese and foreign media for his perceived mediocrity. One report said he had the personality of a “cold pizza,” a label that stuck. His Cabinet’s initial popularity ratings were abysmally low, standing at less than 30 percent. In those days, Japan was in the middle of a banking crisis.

However, the Cabinet’s approval ratings began to rise in the fall of 1998, when the government succeeded in securing the enactment of a series of packages to deal with the banking crisis in an extraordinary Diet session. In February 1999, the Liberal Democratic Party, led by Obuchi, formed an alliance with the Liberal Party, under Ichiro Ozawa, boosting the ratings further. In the summer of 1999, the ratings rose to nearly 50 percent.

In October 1999, the ruling coalition accepted New Komeito into its fold, but the new tripartite alliance fell into public disfavor. The Obuchi Cabinet’s approval ratings fell to around 40 percent.

Early last month, Obuchi fell sick immediately after the LP left the coalition over policy differences. Obuchi won strong public sympathy while under medical care. There was the widespread belief that his sudden collapse was caused by extreme stress stemming from his serious personality and heavy responsibility as the nation’s leader.

Government and LDP leaders are intent on taking advantage in the coming election of this sympathy toward the late leader. The officials agreed that the election should be held June 25, which would have been Obuchi’s 63rd birthday. Following a private funeral Tuesday, the Cabinet of Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, Obuchi’s successor, and the LDP will hold a joint funeral June 8. Nobody doubts that the event will be staged to stir voter sympathy in the election.

However, I doubt that the LDP will succeed with those strategies. National politics should not be influenced by emotion; it should be based on voters’ critical appraisal of politics. At the polls, voters should choose among the ruling LDP, New Komeito and New Conservative Party (which was formed by a splinter group of the LP) and the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, Japan Communist Party, LP and Social Democratic Party.

There are two serious problems concerning Mori and his administration.

First, the process of Mori’s replacement of Obuchi, beginning with the latter’s sudden collapse, is unclear. Doubts linger over the legitimacy of Mori’s takeover, following Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki’s temporary assumption of the premiership. Aoki claimed that Obuchi in his sickbed asked him to act as prime minister. But it is doubtful if Obuchi, who was reportedly almost unconscious then, could have made himself so clear. Aoki later gave conflicting accounts of the alleged conversations.

On the basis of Aoki’s explanations of his bedside encounter with Obuchi, five government and LDP officials held a secret meeting for several hours April 2 and agreed to name Mori as Obuchi’s replacement. Mori, endorsed by the government and the LDP, was later elected as prime minister by the Diet. The secretive back-room deal is dismaying.

Aoki was the only Cabinet member present at the secret meeting. I believe that, at least, Finance Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, a former prime minister, and Foreign Minister Yohei Kono, a former LDP president, should have attended the meeting.

The LDP officials present were then Secretary General Mori, Deputy Secretary General Hiromu Nonaka, policy chief Shizuka Kamei and Upper House leader Masakuni Murakami. Executive Board Chairman Yukihiko Ikeda did not attend. It was not a top government-LDP meeting; it was only a back-room meeting of five political bosses.

Second, I have serious doubts about Mori’s qualifications as prime minister. There have been a number of allegations that cast doubt about his fitness as the national leader. For example, he stirred an uproar when he said Monday Japan is a “divine nation centering on the Emperor,” a sentiment some compared to the nationalist fervor prevalent in Japan through the end of World War II.

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