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Japanese politics is in a bizarre state of limbo. Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori on March 10 expressed his apparent intention to resign, when he said the governing Liberal Democratic Party’s presidential election should be advanced from September, when they are originally scheduled. No date so far has been set for the voting — the winner of which will be the next prime minister — and no politicians have declared their candidacy in the election. The LDP’s faction leaders are busy in backroom dealings.

LDP leaders told the unpopular Mori that he is likely to lose his job in the presidential election that is now expected to be held sometime next month. Mori, however, is loath to go. He met recently with U.S. President George W. Bush and plans to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin soon. Mori also says he is serious about dealing with the nation’s economic crisis. But the lame-duck leader’s enthusiasm has come too late.

No viable candidates have emerged to replace Mori, who is dubbed Japan’s “worst postwar prime minister.” Mori will stay in power until the LDP elects his successor.

There are two strong contenders for the prime minister’s post: former Health and Welfare Minister Junichiro Koizumi and former LDP Secretary General Hiromu Nonaka. It is uncertain at this point which politician has a better chance of winning the LDP presidency. Both, however, have serious problems that could prevent their election.

Nonaka, a veteran lawmaker known for his checkered career and incomparable shrewdness, gets strong support from the LDP’s coalition partners, New Komeito and the New Conservative Party. But his craftiness has created enemies in and outside the LDP. Furthermore, skeptics say his age, 75, makes him unfit for the demanding job. Nonaka belongs to the Keiseikai group, the largest LDP faction, but this group does not have its former unity.

Nonaka has repeatedly said his accession to the prime minister’s post is “200 percent or 300 percent impossible.” His remarks are apparently designed to soften criticism in his faction. I believe there is a good chance that he will run in the election if the faction unites and intra-LDP criticism calms down.

Koizumi, 61, is relatively young and has a reputation as a reformer. This could put him at a disadvantage in the election, however. His call for privatizing Japan’s postal savings, postal insurance and mail-service systems could stir resistance in the conservative LDP.

Neither Nonaka nor Koizumi has garnered solid support within the LDP, and there are moves to find alternative candidates. But there is little chance for a strong dark horse to emerge in the emasculated party.

Among other possible contenders in the LDP are Justice Minister Masahiko Komura; Economics Minister Taro Aso; Trade Minister Takeo Hiranuma; former Science and Technology Agency chief Makiko Tanaka, the daughter of the late Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka; and former Post and Telecommunications Minister Seiko Noda. New Conservative Party head Chikage Ogi and Secretary General Takeshi Noda have also been mentioned as possible candidates. But none of these politicians have a realistic chance of entering the race.

Former Trade Minister Mitsuo Horiuchi is another possible contender, but the mild-mannered lawmaker appears to lack strength to lead the nation at a time when the LDP faces a critical situation.

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