Former ally threatens to topple Japan's PM

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The Independent Online

The future of the Japanese Prime Minister, Yoshiro Mori, was hanging in the balance last night after leading members of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) met to plot his downfall in what is developing into Japan's most serious political crisis in years.

The future of the Japanese Prime Minister, Yoshiro Mori, was hanging in the balance last night after leading members of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) met to plot his downfall in what is developing into Japan's most serious political crisis in years.

LDP leaders held meetings yesterday with Koichi Kato, a former diplomat and LDP moderate whose sudden and violent rebellion against Mr Mori threatens to split Japan's most powerful party.

Members of the governing coalition - the LDP and two smaller parties - appealed for calm and unity. But if Mr Kato can gather enough support among increasingly disillusioned LDP members, he could start a bitter factional war that could either propel him into the office of Prime Minister or lead to a drastic realignment of Japanese politics.

Mr Mori is regarded as a political liability, a witless party hack who has caused repeated embarrassment with his tactless remarks and scandalous stories about the private lives of himself and a close ally.

Mr Kato, a former diplomat and an accomplished linguist with a fluent command of English and Mandarin Chinese, has long been known to harbour prime ministerial ambitions. But the speed and savagery of his coup has surprised everyone and, in a few days, opened up a vista of dramatic and alarming possibilities. At the end of last week Mr Kato said he was planning to abstain in a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister, which opposition parties are tabling this month. At the weekend he demanded Mr Mori's resignation and hinted that he and his allies might vote against him.

"If Mori stays in power, our nation will fall to pieces and Japan's image will deteriorate," he said. "People may not care if we just sit idly by while the Titanic slowly sinks. But it would mean a collapse of Japanese politics."

The opposition parties need 241 votes to win their noconfidence motion and they can be sure of no more than 190. But if Mr Kato's LDP faction, and that of his ally, Taku Yamasaki, were to abstain, the number needed to see off Mr Mori would be only 208. If all rebel LDP members voted against their Prime Minister, he would easily be defeated.

Mr Mori's unsuitability to lead the world's second-biggest economy was obvious from the moment he took the job, after his late predecessor, Keizo Obuchi, suffered a stroke. Within weeks Mr Mori had caused a flap with remarks about the "divine" character of the Japanese nation, an alarming throwback to the supremacist ideology of pre-war military governments.

A fortnight ago, his sidekick, the cabinet secretary, Hidenao Nakagawa, had to resign after revelations about a drug-taking mistress. A poll by the state broadcaster, NHK, showed only 17 per cent of Japanese support Mr Mori's Cabinet, and 68 per cent disapprove.

Cynics say the only reason Mr Mori has been able to keep the job is that no one else wants it, when the country is still struggling to recover from the economic crisis of 1997 and when there are no imminent domestic or international issues for which a Japanese leader can take credit.

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