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A political drama is unfolding over the fate of Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori’s administration, and it is anybody’s guess how it will end.

The opposition forces are threatening to introduce a no-confidence motion against the Mori Cabinet before the current extraordinary Diet session closes Dec. 1. If a no-confidence motion is introduced, it is uncertain whether the Diet will approve or reject it. To avoid chaos, Mori might step down before the Diet votes on such a motion. Should Mori resign, the question is who will replace him. Intense maneuvering continues between the ruling coalition and the opposition forces and within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

The drama started with comments made by former LDP Secretary General Kochi Kato Nov. 7. The LDP dissident leader, increasingly critical of Mori in recent days, effectively called for his resignation by threatening to support a joint no-confidence motion that the four opposition parties are moving to introduce. An LDP faction led by fellow dissident leader Taku Yamasaki gave full support to Kato, although a few members called for moderation.

Meanwhile, the Mori faction, a major faction led by former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and three other factions in the LDP officially agreed to support Mori by rejecting a no-confidence motion against the Mori Cabinet. The five groups have an overwhelming numerical strength over the two dissident groups, stirring speculation that Kato and Yamasaki would be ousted from the LDP after the Diet rejects the no-confidence motion.

Despite their official pro-Mori stance, the five factions are not unified. Mori was also supported by groups under LDP policy chief Shizuka Kamei and Foreign Minister Yohei Kono, who are both anti-Kato, and a group led by former Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura. The last faction is less determined in supporting the prime minister.

Former Health and Welfare Minister Junichiro Koizumi, the new chief of the Mori faction, is in a delicate position. Before heading the Mori group, Koizumi was active in the anti-leadership “YKK” group with Yamasaki and Kato.

The Hashimoto faction, the largest LDP group, is in a quandary. Mikio Aoki, LDP leader in the Upper House and the Hashimoto faction’s strongman, is reportedly keenly aware of Mori’s lack of insight and political skills. Aoki, a former chief Cabinet secretary, was among the four LDP officials who agreed in backroom deals last April to name Mori as prime minister to replace ailing Keizo Obuchi. The other officials were LDP Secretary General Hiromu Nonaka, Kamei and Masakuni Murakami, another LDP leader in the Upper House.

After a series of meetings held Tuesday by the Hashimoto faction, some members reportedly suggested that Mori should step down. There were growing fears that a head-on confrontation between Mori and Kato could lead to a split in the LDP and a political realignment, which would be unacceptable to most members.

The Mori Cabinet has posted dismally low public-approval ratings of less than 20 percent in recent media surveys. Disapproval ratings are around 70 percent.

Another problem is that the LDP is troubled by generational disagreements, as well as the more familiar factional squabblings. At a meeting of the Hashimoto faction Tuesday, young members expressed fears that the LDP would suffer a devastating setback in the 2001 Upper House election if Mori remained in his job until then.

Repercussions from Kato’s determination to challenge Mori for power are spreading in the political world. The political survival of the Mori administration is at stake, and Japanese politics is at a turning point.

Koizumi, as chief of the Mori faction and a former member of the YKK dissident group, could play a decisive role in the unfolding drama.

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