Election for Japan PM may be April 22

TOKYO, Reuters

Ruling politicians are firming up the timetable for replacing unpopular Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori next month, domestic media said on Thursday, but the outlook for who will succeed him is as cloudy as ever.

Mori had already promised to bring forward from September an election to replace him as president of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which dominates the coalition government, but confusion still reigns over exactly when he will resign.

Coalition lawmakers are keen to ditch the prime minister, his popularity shredded by gaffes and scandals, ahead of a July Upper House poll in the hope of improving their chances.

The latest gaffe by the lame-duck prime minister came this week when he came under fire from domestic media for skipping a dinner with the king and queen of Norway to chat with political backers over sushi.

Top government spokesman Yasuo Fukuda declined to comment on a report in the Asahi Shimbun newspaper that the LDP was planning to hold the election on April 22, and to install the new government on April 23.

“We can’t say anything until it happens,” Fukuda told reporters.

The unusual date — April 22 is a Sunday — would be chosen to minimize disruption to parliament, which is currently in session, the Asahi said.

It said Mori was likely to meet party leaders around April 5 to discuss the timing and details of the poll. The winner of the contest will most likely become Japan’s next prime minister because the party dominates the ruling coalition.

April 5, which marks exactly one year since Mori took office, has also been tipped as one date for him to state his formal resignation.

By then, his way out would be cleared by the passage of various bills related to the budget for the 2001/2002 fiscal year. The Asahi said most of these are likely to have been passed by April 3.

While the calendar may be firming up, the list of potential successors remains very much in flux.

Party powerbrokers have been engrossed in talks behind closed doors to hammer out a solution to the question of who will replace Mori. With his support ratings in the single digits, Mori is one of Japan’s most unpopular prime ministers ever.

Junichiro Koizumi, leader of Mori’s faction in the multi-group LDP and a reformist, has been widely regarded as one potential candidate. But hints dropped recently that he might not run have cast doubts on this scenario.

“It still is not the time to say whether I will run or not. I’d like to see how things turn out,” Koizumi said on Thursday.

Key to who wins the top party post is the giant LDP faction headed by former prime minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, now a minister in Mori’s Cabinet.

Hiromu Nonaka, 75, a former chief Cabinet secretary and the faction’s de facto leader, has been adamant that he will not take the position, fuelling speculation that the faction may field Hashimoto himself.

Hashimoto, however, has already had to resign as prime minister once, stepping down after the LDP underwent a thrashing in a 1998 Upper House election. Nor is he popular among members of his own faction.

That means the group could decide to back a dark horse candidate from its own or another faction, domestic media say.

Politicians such as Economics Minister Taro Aso, 60, and Trade Minister Takeo Hiranuma, 61, have been cited as possible contenders.