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Koichi Kato failed in his high-profile rebellion last week against the government of Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori. The leading dissident in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party had vowed to unseat Mori by voting for an opposition-sponsored no-confidence motion against the Mori Cabinet. But when faced with threats of expulsion, Kato got cold feet and abstained from the vote, paving the way for the motion’s defeat.

The confrontation between the ruling and opposition forces occurred when intra-LDP power struggles came to a head. Victorious in the showdown were the LDP’s leadership groups, centering on a faction headed by former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto. The vote contrasted sharply with recent polls, which showed that public disapproval-ratings for the Mori Cabinet exceeded 70 percent.

Kato said he opposed Mori because approval ratings for the Mori Cabinet had plunged to such low levels. While he was correct, he and the opposition forces lost the showdown because their attempt lacked both workable strategies and unity.

First, the timing was bad for the introduction of the no-confidence motion. The opposition camp should have introduced the motion soon after Kato started his revolt against the LDP, which attracted public attention and stirred hopes for a political renewal. By delaying the introduction of the motion until last week, the opposition created an opportunity for home-district supporters to persuade many uncommitted lawmakers to oppose the motion.

Second, the opposition ranks lacked unity. There is speculation that many members of the top opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan, would not vote for the no-confidence motion because they hoped to eventually join the LDP. These lawmakers were mostly former members of a defunct middle-of-the-road opposition party, the Democratic Socialist Party.

Mori is the least popular prime minister in Japan since the end of World War II. For some time many LDP members argued that Mori should step down before the July 2001 Upper House election because the LDP would otherwise lose the election. Some party executives reportedly considered forcing Mori’s resignation by taking advantage of allegations that the prime minister was caught in a police raid on a brothel 30 years ago.

Party elders changed their minds, however, believing that the LDP would have a good chance of winning the election with Mori at the helm if it fielded entertainers and other famous personalities in the proportional-representation section of the polls under the new electoral system.

A friend of Kato reportedly told him that he should have allowed fellow dissidents to abstain from voting so they could avoid the threat of expulsion from the LDP, but voted for the motion himself, as he had pledged to do. He then should have given the leadership of his group to fellow LDP dissident Taku Yamasaki and retired. This move would have allowed Kato to lead a political revival as the hero of a political tragedy.

There is an unbridgeable difference between the conservative Mori, who said Japan is “a nation of gods centering on the Emperor,” and the liberal Kato.

Before the showdown, Kato and Mori held separate meetings with political commentators and media representatives. In his meeting, Kato told a commentator that he intended to reshuffle the Cabinet (as prime minister). The Mori meeting was apparently intended to be a demonstration of power by LDP kingmakers. The next morning, newspapers and television reported Kato had announced an open revolt against Mori, starting a confrontation between the LDP leadership groups and Kato’s forces.

As the challenger, Kato should have made careful plans for a takeover, making sure that his supporters were united and his action was well-timed. But his preparations and strategies, especially regarding publicity, were incomplete. He made a strategic mistake when he met with pro-Mori commentators to announce a revolt against Mori and disclosed his true intentions. This allowed his opponents to take advantage of him.

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