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Japan's Mori Berated but Not Ousted


TOKYO — The verbal abuse came fast and furiously, but Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori easily survived a no-confidence motion in parliament Monday despite gaffes, scandals, desperately low popularity and a stock-market nose dive.

"You don't feel ashamed--that's the most shameful thing," opposition lawmaker Yukio Hatoyama told Mori, who has been in office for 11 months.

"You can't make a good omelet with rotten eggs. With rotten politicians, people's lives can't get any better," declared Kansei Nakano.

As expected, the burly Mori--who stoically sat through an hour and a half of harangues--survived. A total of 192 deputies voted in favor of the no-confidence motion, while 274 voted against.

To some observers, the motion seemed like so much Kabuki. And the outcome left Japan's beleaguered leader in place at a particularly difficult time for the nation's economy.

Though top Liberal Democratic Party officials insisted that the vote was an expression of confidence in Mori and his Cabinet, it only heightened the already considerable pressure on him to bow out.

Takenori Kanzaki, leader of the New Komeito party in Mori's ruling coalition, opposed the no-confidence vote but nevertheless wants Mori to resign. He indicated that he thinks Mori should offer his resignation before an LDP conference March 13.

Former LDP policy chief Taku Yamasaki also voted against the motion but called for Mori's early resignation.

"Japanese people's distrust in politics has reached a peak," Yamasaki said.

In another sign of rebellion within the ruling party, 15 young LDP lawmakers who voted against the motion nevertheless demanded that the prime minister step down early.

Like many members of the party, they fear that his low approval rating--which has dipped to 6% in some polls--will drag down the party's fortunes in July elections for the upper house. If the ruling party's showing is bad, it could push the opposition to demand new elections in the more powerful lower house.

But Mori's remarks to reporters after the vote seemed to indicate that he isn't planning to go any time soon. Mori said the vote was an endorsement.

"I am in the position to be responsible for the 2001 budget [which parliament is now considering] and all the budget-related bills to be approved," he said.

There is no mechanism to force Mori from office except a no-confidence vote. Japanese politics, like most other things in this society, tends to operate by consensus. But it isn't clear what will happen if the top government official doesn't heed the group.

"Mr. Mori is very tough," said Tokyo political analyst Hiroshi Takaku. "He could very well say: 'See, they supported me. I have a mandate.' The ball is in his court."

Takaku said the no-confidence motion put LDP lawmakers in a no-win position: They could either vote with the opposition or support the prime minister from their party and alienate their constituents.

In that sense, Takaku said, the motion was a smart ploy by the opposition.

In recent years, the prime minister's job has been a revolving door: Mori is the eighth prime minister in the past decade.

But there is no clear and strong candidate for successor. Several potential candidates have said they don't want the post. Others are too closely tied to Mori or tainted by scandals, which have included abuse of Foreign Ministry funds for racehorses, lovers and expensive wine.

Mori's political mistakes have included making comments suggestive of Japan's pre-World War II militarism and continuing his golf game after being notified of the sinking of a Japanese high school fishing vessel by a U.S. submarine.

One of the key legislators responsible for Mori's appointment after Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi died last year resigned in a scandal involving disability payments collected by a small quasi-governmental firm that made payments to politicians.

In addition, the economy has been weak, with the Nikkei blue-chip stock index having dropped to a 15-year low last week and unemployment hovering at record levels of nearly 5%.

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