Japanese PM under new pressure to quit as MPs desert him for rival

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The Independent Online

The political life of Yoshiro Mori, the Japanese prime minister, appeared to be nearing its end last night, as former political friends turned their backs on him and growing numbers of his party MPs deserted him for his political rival.

The political life of Yoshiro Mori, the Japanese prime minister, appeared to be nearing its end last night, as former political friends turned their backs on him and growing numbers of his party MPs deserted him for his political rival.

Mr Mori flew out of Japan yesterday to a summit meeting of Asia-Pacific leaders in Brunei, unsure whether he would be still be in charge on his return tomorrow. "When I accepted the offer to be prime minister, I said it was a mandate from heaven," he told reporters on the flight out. "I want faithfully to carry out my task."

On arrival on Brunei, he was less emphatic, speaking only of his "responsibility" to avoid "a political vacuum", suggesting a possibility that he may step down in favour of a political ally.

Japanese newspapers reported private conversations in which the prime minister, apparently only half in jest, suggested he would no longer be prime minister by Christmas.

His demise may be sooner than that. In the seven months since he took over, Mr Mori has experienced wretched opinion poll ratings,scandals and public relations disasters, but until six days ago he appeared to be in no immediate danger of losing his job.

Then, in an intense and unexpected attack, Koichi Kato, a fellow member of the Liberal Democratic Party, demanded Mr Mori's resignation and said he was considering siding with the opposition in a no-confidence vote next week.

He wants to steer the long-dominant LDP from its big-spending, big-government policies that have left Japan a huge public debt. He also wants to cut red tape critics say has strangled economic growth.

At first, senior LDP leaders adopted a cautious response to Mr Kato's coup. But in the last 48 hours, the anti-Mori movement has gained such unexpected momentum, it is hard to see how he can survive.

The movement has been driven by young LDP politicians, deeply critical of the party's stiff and inflexible hierarchy, who support Mr Kato's programme of political and economic reform. If he can persude enough of them to abstain, or to vote with the opposition next week, Mr Mori will be defeated, forcing a general election, or the resignation of the cabinet.

If that outcome appears likely, the LDP hierarchy would ask Mr Mori to resign and put up their own candidate against Mr Kato. "Passing a no-confidence vote is only the first step," Mr Kato has said. "The main battle will be the vote to select the prime minister."

Names include Yohei Kono, the present foreign minister, and his predecessor in the post, Masahiko Komuro, safe but unimaginative choices who would inspire only a little more confidence than Mr Mori. Other possibilities include Junichi Koizumi, an eccentric and charismatic reformer who shares a party faction with Mr Mori, and Kiichi Miyazawa, the octogenarian finance minister.

For the time being at least, the political tide is surging behind Mr Kato, who has thrown most unspontaneous and conservative of political parties into a dithering frenzy.

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