Mori set to take over as new Japanese PM

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Yoshiro Mori, a veteran political operator and leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, becomes Japan's Prime Minister today, three days after his predecessor, Keizo Obuchi, had a stroke that caused an unprec-edented constitutional crisis.

If all goes to plan, the 62-year-old Mr Mori will be chosen as the LDP's new leader this morning, and elected Prime Minister a few hours later by the Lower House of the Japanese Diet. He will appoint his cabinet this evening, although he is expected to retain most of Mr Obuchi's ministers and to bring about no significant changes in the direction of the government.

After near-paralysis in the first two days of the crisis, during which officials lied about Mr Obuchi going to hospital and evaded questions about the gravity of his comatose condition, the government moved quickly yesterday to fill the leadership void.

But some politicians and commentators reacted with dismay to Mr Mori's imminent appointment, and the opposition parties immediately began pressing the LDP to dissolve parliament and hold an early general election.

"They're choosing him to avoid a political vacancy, for reasons of political expedience," said Makiko Tanaka, an LDP Diet member and daughter of the former prime minister Kakuei Tanaka. "This will produce the worst possible cabinet."

Last night it was clear Mr Obuchi is still desperately ill, although the acting prime minister, Mikio Aoki, denied reports that he had suffered brain death. "His condition was the same as before," Mr Aoki told reporters after visiting the unconscious Mr Obuchi in Juntendo Hospital, Tokyo. "But his complexion is good, and the pattern of brain waves shows he is not brain-dead."

But he admitted the Prime Minister had suffered brain damage as a result of the stroke he had on Sunday night. Mr Obuchi's younger daughter, Yuko, flew back from her studies in London to join other members of his family at the hospital yesterday. The assumption in Nagatacho, Japan's equivalent of Westminster, is that he will probably never recover.

Despite Mr Obuchi's unconsciousness, Mr Aoki announced the resignation of the cabinet last night, citing a clause in the constitution requiring such action in cases where the prime minister is "absent".

Mr Mori, number two in the LDP hierarchy, said yesterday: "We should not allow any delay in our national policy. Thinking of Prime Minister Obuchi, it's a very painful decision. But we shouldn't be carried away with emotions."

After 24 hours of negotiation among the LDP's factions, Mr Mori appeared certain of being named as the only candidate.

In the manner of many LDP leaders, Mr Mori will become Prime Minister not because he possesses great brilliance or political acumen, but because it is his turn. An exact contemporary and friend of Mr Obuchi, he was a fellow member of the debating society at Tokyo's prestigious Waseda University in the late 1950s.

After two years as journalist on the Sankei newspaper, he entered parliament in 1969 as representative of his home in Ishikawa prefecture on Japan's bleak northern coast. He held a series of increasingly senior posts, including education minister, trade and industry minister, and finally LDP secretary general.

Physically, Mr Mori is an imposing figure - an active rugby player with a 45in waist. But politically he is regarded as a pliant party hack.

Masaya Ito, who worked with Mr Mori in the LDP says: "He is a man without policies, but he is good at listening to other people. In that sense he is an opportunist. He can instinctively smell where power will be next, and he follows it."

Minoru Morita, a political analyst, said: "The LDP is a kind of bureaucracy, and Mori is a master technocrat within it. As for political philosophy, he relied on other people."

The big question now is whether Mr Obuchi's political demise will hasten Japan's next general election, which must be held by October at the latest.

The opposition parties will be keen to take advantage of the fall in popularity of the LDP-dominated government since it entered into a coalition with two smaller parties last year. Mr Mori, who has the power to dissolve parliament, may choose to capitalise on a groundswell of sympathy for the LDP caused by Mr Obuchi's sudden illness.