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Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori’s departure is inevitable, although he insists he has no intention of resigning. The questions are no longer if but when he will step down, and who will replace him.

Earlier this year, the Mori administration was jolted by two major scandals — the KSD affair and the alleged embezzlement of secret government funds by a Foreign Ministry official. To make matters worse, it was shaken by signs of U.S. and Japanese economic slowdown. Last month, public-approval ratings for the Mori administration plunged to unprecedented lows of less than 20 percent.

Mori got into even deeper trouble when a Japanese fisheries training ship sank off Honolulu Feb. 10 after a collision with a U.S. nuclear submarine. Mori, who was playing golf in a Tokyo suburb at the time, continued to play after he was informed of the disaster, and did not return to the prime minister’s official residence for four hours. This stirred extreme public anger, and public-approval ratings for the Mori administration in mid-February fell to less than 10 percent.

Mori was named as prime minister last April in a secret deal among several heavyweights of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to replace ailing Keizo Obuchi. After assuming his post, Mori committed a number of verbal blunders. Critics have said he is unqualified for his job. Opposition parties have lambasted him, public opinion has turned against him and even lawmakers of the LDP and its coalition partners — New Komeito and the New Conservative Party — have been urging him to step down.

Mori, embattled but insensitive as ever to mounting criticism, insists he will lead efforts to obtain Diet passage of the fiscal 2001 budget and will hold a summit with U.S. President George W. Bush. He also says he hopes to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin to expedite the reversion of the Northern Territories to Japan.

New Komeito leaders have given up on Mori and are agitating to establish a new coalition Cabinet under a new leader in preparation for the Upper House election in July. They have agreed with New Conservative Party Secretary General Takeshi Noda to support former LDP Secretary General Hiromu Nonaka for the prime minister’s job.

Within the LDP, Junichiro Koizumi, former health and welfare minister and now head of the LDP’s Mori faction, is the top contender for the post. However, intraparty resistance could arise if the Mori faction produced two prime ministers in a row.

In addition, Koizumi, a reformer, has long advocated the privatization of mail, postal insurance and postal savings services. It is somewhat doubtful if the conservative LDP will accept Koizumi as its leader. Koizumi, considered a maverick in the LDP, has drawn public support for just that reason. He could become a savior for the LDP, which critics say is on the verge of unraveling.

Nonaka, the doyen of LDP lawmakers, gets strong support from New Komeito and the New Conservative Party. An old-fashioned politician, he is often compared to the late Deputy Prime Minister Shin Kanemaru. Nonaka, 75, has a reputation as a top power broker, as did Kanemaru. He is unfit as a new leader for the 21st century.

In addition to odds-on favorite Koizumi and rival Nonaka, New Conservative Party chief Chikage Ogi has emerged as a dark horse in the leadership race. Although Ogi is politically shrewd, it is uncertain if the LDP will be generous enough to support the leader of its minor partner as the next prime minister. Amid the confusion, Mori might insist on keeping his job. This all shows that the 45-year-old LDP has lost vitality and is unable to produce good material for national leadership.

When will the government change hands? Many pundits are predicting it will happen next month. I would speculate, half as jokingly, that it will happen April 5, a year after Mori launched his Cabinet while Obuchi, his predecessor, lay comatose following a stroke.

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