Japan’s PM race heats up as Mori faces last hurrah

TOKYO, Reuters

The race to replace Japan’s lame-duck prime minister, Yoshiro Mori, heated up on Wednesday with reports his ruling party’s biggest faction would back former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto as its candidate.

No contender has formally thrown his or her hat in the ring for the presidency of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the winner of which is likely to become Japan’s 11th prime minister in 12 years by virtue of the LDP led ruling coalition’s majority in parliament’s Lower House.

Japanese media said, however, that senior members of Hashimoto’s LDP faction had decided to back the 63-year-old former prime minister after winning support from two other key blocs in the multi-group party.

Hashimoto, a past proponent of fiscal reform to get Japan’s massive public debt under control, resigned from the top post after the LDP performed abysmally in a 1998 Upper House election. He is currently a minister in Mori’s Cabinet.

Mori, one of Japan’s least popular premiers ever, told LDP Secretary-General Makoto Koga to set up a party election panel to discuss timing and procedures. The panel will hold its first meeting on Thursday.

“Prime Minister Mori will resign once a new head of the LDP is decided,” Kyodo news agency quoted Koga as telling reporters after meeting the prime minister.

Shizuka Kamei, the LDP’s policy chief, said senior party officials had agreed to hold the party poll in April.

Domestic newspapers have tipped April 23 for the party poll and April 26 for a vote by parliament on a new prime minister.

LDP executives also agreed the term of the new party president would last to the end of September but could be longer if the LDP fares well in a crucial Upper House election in July.

Analysts have said, though, that Mori’s successor could be replaced sooner if the ruling camp performs badly in July.

The meeting comes as the government scurries to finalize a keenly awaited package of economic steps aimed mainly at solving the bad loan problems at the nation’s banks. The measures had been expected to be unveiled on Wednesday, but ruling politicians said the government would delay the announcement until Friday.

Lawmakers in the three-way coalition, led by the conservative LDP, are keen to ditch Mori in the hope of improving their chances at a crucial July Upper House poll.

Party elder Hiromu Nonaka, 75, a heavyweight in Hashimoto’s faction, has also been considered a potential candidate, but has repeatedly said he does not intend to run.

Other possible contenders include Mori’s chief lieutenant, reform-minded Junichiro Koizumi, 59, and Economics Minister Taro Aso, 60, who said on Tuesday he was considering his candidacy in response to calls to run by some young members of the LDP.

Many investors are keen to see someone with a reformist flair assume the premiership, though whoever wins the post may only last a few months if the LDP-led camp loses the Upper House poll.

“…At the very least, having a prime minister at all would be an advantage,” said Garry Evans, equity strategist at HSBC Securities. “Mr. Mori is basically now a lame duck. Once we’ve got someone in place, at least we have a little bit of political stability until the Upper House election in July.”

Mori, tapped for the post by Nonaka and a small band of other LDP powerbrokers last April after his predecessor suffered a fatal stroke, saw his popularity crumble after a string of blunders and verbal gaffes.

The unpopular prime minister faced further lashings from the opposition in parliament on Wednesday.

“At a time when the nation’s problems are mounting, it is extremely unfortunate that politics are simply focused on when the prime minister is going to resign,” said Takako Doi, chief of the small Social Democratic Party.

“The entire Cabinet ought to resign now,” she said.

The past year has also seen public support slip for the LDP, which has ruled Japan for most of the past five decades.

A public opinion survey by Kyodo last weekend showed support had dipped to 27.9 percent, the first fall below 30 percent since shortly after the party’s loss in the 1998 Upper House poll.

But support for the main opposition Democratic Party also slipped by 1.8 points in February to 15.4 percent.