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On March 5, the Lower House voted down an opposition-sponsored no-confidence motion against the Cabinet of Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori. Theoretically, the apparent vote of confidence for the Mori Cabinet should have restored a semblance of political stability, but things do not work that way in Japanese politics. Mori and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party will face a critical situation in March or April.

Out of a total 466 lawmakers present, 192 voted for the motion and 274 against. Legislators of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, Liberal Party, Japan Communist Party and Social Democratic Party, as well as two independents, backed the motion. Members of the three-party ruling coalition — the LDP, New Komeito and the New Conservative Party — and seven other legislators rejected it.

Of the 14 other members of the 480-seat chamber, seven boycotted the vote, four abstained, and two failed to attend for health reasons. Lower House Speaker Tamisuke Watanuki did not vote.

LDP dissident leader Koichi Kato and six members of his faction — Sadakazu Tanigaki, Hajime Morita, Jiro Kawasaki, Ichiro Aizawa, Hiroyuki Sonoda and Gen Nakatani –boycotted the voting. The “seven samurai” are expected to play a major role in power struggles over the selection of Mori’s successor following his survival of the no-confidence motion.

On the surface, Mori appears to be confident of remaining in power after receiving this “vote of confidence” in the Diet. However, there are growing moves in the LDP, and the opposition forces as well, to unseat him.

Mori’s leadership qualities have been questioned ever since he took office last April as a result of a backroom deal among five LDP stalwarts. Mori himself and a few of his top aides have been tainted by scandals.

Mori has been plagued by a payoff scandal involving the mutual-aid organization KSD, the embezzlement of a secret state fund by a Foreign Ministry bureaucrat and his own failure to lead crisis-management efforts following the sinking of a Japanese fisheries training ship by a U.S. nuclear submarine. Mori, who was playing golf at the time, continued playing even after hearing of the disaster. He lacks insight, leadership qualities and awareness of his responsibility as the top national leader.

After Mori took power almost a year ago, public-approval ratings for his Cabinet had remained in the 20-30 percent range through much of 2000. The economy began to slide in January, and then a series of scandals hit the Mori administration. The public-approval ratings plunged to less than 10 percent. Despite his public display of swashbuckling and insensitivity, Mori faces mounting pressure to resign.

When will Mori announce his resignation? When will he be replaced as LDP president? When will a new administration debut?

Mori is now expected to announce his resignation Monday at a meeting of ruling-coalition officials and at a meeting of secretaries general of the LDP’s prefectural chapters, the day before the LDP is scheduled to hold a convention. The convention is likely to endorse the resignation.

The prime minister, however, has been saying he will not leave his post until the fiscal 2001 government budget and related legislation clear the Diet. The budget, which has already passed the Lower House, is likely to be approved by the Upper House before fiscal 2000 ends March 31.

Mori reportedly hopes to meet with Presidents George W. Bush of the United States and Vladimir Putin of Russia. In his talks with Putin, Mori wishes to discuss the long-pending reversion of the Northern Territories to Japan. However, the lame-duck prime minister, who is likely to be replaced in April, will have little chance to hold the summits.

I believe that he is determined to remain in his job until April 5, since he was selected to his post on that date last year in a secret deal among LDP heavyweights. The secretiveness of the selection process has been widely criticized, causing public-approval ratings for his Cabinet to remain low. He is probably loath to go down in history as a short-lived prime minister who stayed in his job for less than a year, and wishes to bring his administration to a successful conclusion by making a better showing in the remaining months.

A search for Mori’s replacement as LDP president will now begin. The LDP, however, lacks candidates with leadership skills to replace the unpopular and incompetent Mori. Meanwhile, the Upper House election to be held in July will be approaching. There is limited time before the polls. It will be interesting to watch the political farce over Mori’s successor unfold.

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