Numbers start to stack up

TOKYO, Reuters

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, under fire from the day he took office in April, was in deeper trouble on Saturday as cracks appeared in his ruling party when a rival insisted he would abstain from a no-confidence motion.

Domestic media speculated that the no-confidence motion, which the opposition might submit this month, could be adopted and sink the government if enough members in Mori’s own Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) abstain or join the opposition to vote against Mori.

Mori has seen his disapproval rating soar to over 70 percent after his latest verbal gaffe and the resignation of a top aide, and some younger LDP lawmakers have called for him to resign.

On Friday, former LDP senior executive Koichi Kato — long cited as a potential successor to Mori — deepened the internal division in the party when he said he might abstain from voting on the no-confidence motion.

“Given that 75 percent of the public disapproves of the Mori government, I cannot say that I will oppose the no-confidence measure just because I am an LDP member,” Kato said.

A day later, Kato was sticking to that stance.

“Newspaper stories on my comments from yesterday indicate that people are ready for a change. Nothing has changed in my plan,” Kato told reporters on Saturday.

Four opposition parties agreed on Thursday to submit a no-confidence motion jointly against Mori later this month.

Kato appears to be hoping for support from LDP lawmakers angry over the election setback suffered under Mori’s lead last June in a Lower House election and worried about a rerun in an Upper House election next July unless the party ditches the premier and improves its image.

A no-confidence motion could not succeed without defections from the ruling camp, which holds 272 seats in the 480-seat Lower House.

Kato’s faction is the second biggest in the LDP with 45 members but could not sink the prime minister on its own even if all members followed his lead, an outcome by no means certain.

But support from Kato’s long-time ally Taku Yamasaki, who heads an LDP faction with 19 members, from LDP Young Turks in other factions and from independents could tip the balance against Mori, domestic media said.

Almost from the moment LDP power brokers tapped Mori some seven months ago to replace the late Keizo Obuchi who had suffered a fatal stroke, the premier has had limp public support.

His penchant for verbal gaffes and the resignation of two cabinet ministers over scandals have eroded that support further.

That has been exacerbated by the belief in many quarters that the LDP’s old-style policies of pork-barrel spending are not the way to restore Japan’s competitiveness in the Internet Age.

Public support for Mori dropped below 20 percent early this month, a level domestic media said was a danger zone because past premiers with similarly low levels were forced out within months.

The contrast between Mori and Kato could hardly be clearer.

Kato, a Harvard-educated former diplomat who is fluent in English and Chinese, advocated deregulating the economy and ending the pork-barrel spending that has bequeathed Japan the biggest public debt among advanced nations.

Mori has been stuck with the reputation as a parochial political infighter wedded to the big-government cures his party has prescribed for decades.

Foreign investors in Japan’s wilting stock market, who are keen to see reforms that would open the door to sustainable economic growth, would applaud a Kato victory.

The last time a powerful LDP leader turned against the party was in 1993 when Ichiro Ozawa broke ranks with some 40 other MPs. Then-premier Kiichi Miyazawa lost a no-confidence vote and called a Lower House election in which the LDP failed to win a majority.

If a no-confidence measure passes the Lower House, Mori’s cabinet must either resign or he must dissolve the Lower House and call a general election.