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Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori has apparently acknowledged what the media have been saying of late: His days are numbered. But he has left everyone guessing exactly when he will step down. One thing is certain, however: The Liberal Democratic Party will select a new leader in a presidential election later this year. Otherwise, Liberal Democrats must fear that their party will lose power with the least popular prime minister in recent decades.

Basically, however, the prime minister continues to refuse to clearly express his intention to resign, even in talks with party executives, despite mounting pressures for his exit. He may have reasons to be noncommittal, but his silence does a disservice to the Japanese public and foreigners. He should tell the nation as soon as possible that he will step down and, better still, when he will do so.

The LDP has decided to hold a presidential election ahead of schedule, sometime before July’s Upper House poll. The eventual winner is everyone’s guess, but whoever it is will be the next prime minister, assuming that the LDP-led coalition stays in power. However, saying that he will quit as party chief is not the same as saying that he will quit as prime minister. As the nation’s chief executive, Mr. Mori is duty-bound to clarify his intentions to a public clamoring for his resignation.

Earlier this month, the coalition parties voted down a no-confidence motion against the Mori Cabinet. If Mr. Mori takes this as justification for remaining in office, he is wrong. The rejection of the motion does not mean that the prime minister has regained public confidence. He would have done the nation a service if he had publicly committed himself to an early resignation.

Looking back over the 11 months he has been in office, Prime Minister Mori has committed a series of verbal blunders, raising doubts about his fitness to lead the nation. Perhaps the most glaring gaffe was his description of Japan as a “nation of the gods with the Emperor at its center.” His party suffered a stunning setback in June’s Lower House election. His administration has been racked by corruption scandals. More recently, his slow response to the accidental sinking of a Japanese fisheries training vessel by a U.S. submarine sparked public outrage. His approval ratings plummeted to single-digit numbers.

In the meantime, the economy has continued to stagnate, sending stock prices into a tailspin and stoking the embers of a banking crisis. Signs of a deflationary spiral — which Japan has never experienced since the end of World War II — are growing daily. Yet the prime minister was so busy finding excuses for his mistakes that he had little time for drastic policy initiatives. In the process, the economy — indeed, the whole nation — lost much precious time needed for structural changes. Of course it is unfair to blame the prime minister for all this. Also to blame are the three ruling parties — the LDP, New Komeito and the Conservative Party — which put off hard decisions while vowing repeatedly to “put the economy on the recovery path.”

Now that the prime minister has uttered what seems to be a statement indicating his desire to resign, attention is shifting to the forthcoming LDP presidential election. But choosing the next leader, however complicated, is the easy part, when compared with the task of carrying on the work left undone or unfinished by the Mori administration. It is what the next team will do that really counts, not who will head it. A changing of the guard is only the first step toward reform.

Reform is the key word, particularly for the LDP. To begin with, the party must have a real sense of crisis. Intraparty factions and power brokers rule the selection process for prime minister, and most LDP members have little chance to openly discuss the issue. Mr. Mori’s problems show that only a democratic selection process will enable the party to produce an honorable leader. Yet backroom talks among party officials and factional maneuvering are still the stuff of LDP politics.

Indeed, old habits die hard. To be born again, the LDP must change its old ways. An open and policy-oriented presidential election is an essential prerequisite for party reform. If the next president is chosen behind closed doors, as Mr. Mori was, the LDP will lose even more public support.

It appears that the prime minister is seeking an “honorable exit” through summit meetings with U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin in the coming weeks. The significance, if any, of such lame-duck diplomacy will be largely symbolic, however. Mr. Mori could quit in a more meaningful way if a presidential contest were held early, and in a manner that would bring real change to the LDP.

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