The government of Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori faces another political crisis after a furor over a controversial electoral-reform bill died down with the Diet passage of the legislation. The law introduces a new voting system in the proportional-representation section of Upper House polls.

The latest crisis stems from a diplomatic blunder committed by Mori and a scandal involving his No. 2 man, Hidenao Nakagawa, who was forced to resign as chief Cabinet secretary. Although its public-approval ratings dropped below the critical 20 percent level, the Mori Cabinet remains in power. Speculation is rampant that Mori will be forced to resign before the end of the year.

Foreign media are critical of Mori’s latest gaffe, which occurred during his recent meeting in Seoul with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Mori reportedly told Blair of his plan to solve the diplomatic row with North Korea over 10 Japanese allegedly abducted from Japan to North Korea by pretending they were found as “missing persons” in another country. The Economist magazine compared Mori to a puppet who cannot even read prepared texts.

Since taking power last April, Mori has committed a series of gaffes, starting with the statement that Japan is a “country of gods with the Emperor at its center.” His qualifications to serve as prime minister have been put in serious doubt. And with North Korea detecting weaknesses in Japan’s negotiating position, Tokyo-Pyongyang talks on normalizing diplomatic relations have made little progress.

The Financial Times has reported that there are no qualified candidates capable of succeeding Mori, which is why he manages to remain in power even after his string of blunders. This is not true. There are some strong contenders who could replace Mori, who some experts say is the worst prime minister in Japan’s postwar political history. Among the potential candidates are former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto; Koichi Kato, former secretary general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party; and Foreign Minister Yohei Kono. The problem is that the political world is plagued by endless power struggles, factional strife and mud-slinging. This makes it difficult to choose candidates.

Three young reform-minded LDP lawmakers — Yoshimi Watanabe, Nobuteru Ishihara and Yasuhisa Shiozaki — proposed that an LDP presidential election be held in December, a year ahead of schedule, so that the party will greet the 21st century under a new leader. They believe that the LDP will lose the Upper House election next summer if Mori remains in power until then. Some LDP factions are also agitating for an early presidential election. The party could be hit by serious turbulence toward the end of the year.

Mori took power last April to replace the ailing Keizo Obuchi. After backroom deals, four LDP stalwarts agreed to name Mori as prime minister. In the Lower House election last June, the ruling coalition of the LDP, New Komeito and the New Conservative Party managed to retain a majority. Mori launched his new coalition Cabinet in July. In the seven months since becoming prime minister, Mori has clung to power despite his Cabinet’s dismally low public-approval ratings. A change of government could happen before the end of the year or before the 2001 Upper House election.

Japan is drifting under the rudderless Mori administration. It would be hardly surprising if Japan’s political and economic structural reforms for the 21st century were seriously delayed.

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