A job no one wants: leading Japan

Backroom politicians stumble for a solution to a disliked prime minister.

In most places, it's a basic law of the political jungle: when a leader looks weak, it isn't long before another steps in to take the reins.

In Japan, however, many politicians seem less concerned with filling the power vacuum than they are with getting sucked up by it.

Although Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori's approval rating has shriveled into the single-digit category - making him one of the least popular Japanese leaders in post-World War II history - no one from his ruling Liberal Democratic Party wants to take his place.

Their reluctance is indicative of the chronically debilitated state of the economy - and the ruling party. Unemployment is at record highs, and the Nikkei, one major index of the Japanese stock market, hit a 15-year low on Friday.

Yesterday, Mr. Mori survived a no-confidence motion in Japan's lower house of parliament. But the motion's defeat was less an act of loyalty on the part of Mori's coalition members than an attempt to buy more time.

While pressure on Mori to resign has built to immense proportions, the party powerbrokers who handpicked him to replace Keizo Obuchi last year appear to be unable to find a successor. The political party that has run Japan almost uninterrupted since WWII is in such a dire strait that it looks like a lost ship: No crew member wants to take the helm until it is sailing in surer waters.

That is, not until July, when the LDP is expected to face heavy losses in elections for the upper house of the Diet. The predicted losses would just keep it hanging on to power, and probably would force the LDP to call elections for the lower house. Then a new coalition government - headed by a younger, more dynamic crop of LDP politicians - can lead the country off into the sunset.

If that logic seems hard to follow or improbable, behold the frustration of the Japanese electorate. While the newspapers are full of Mori's gaffes, LDP's scandals, careening stock prices and dwindling yen rates, no clear leader has surfaced because the top job in the country - very soon to be vacant, according to Japanese media reports - is seen as a temporary one.

"Most of the leaders quite seriously believe they cannot win the next upper house election, so most of them think, 'Yes, I should be the next, next prime minister.' Then they can enjoy a more comfortable situation," explains Takeshi Sasaki, president and professor of political science at the University of Tokyo. The LDP is looking for a "very short-term, caretaker cabinet," and those with the best political prospects do not want to sacrifice their careers for the party's interim political needs. "No one wants to be a three- or four-month prime minister," Mr. Sasaki adds. "This framework is too short to overcome the old legacy of the old LDP, and institutional factors represented by Japanese bureaucracy are not easy to overcome in three or four months."

But the search for a disposable prime minister - based on the apparent assumption that he will be replaced with someone else this summer - perhaps goes to heart of Japan's leadership woes. Mori was chosen in a closed-door meeting last April, after then-Prime Minister Obuchi fell ill, by party kingmakers dubbed the "Gang of Four." Now, various proposals for change include demands that a new leader be chosen in transparent party elections at the LDP convention March 13, and calls for direct popular election of the prime minister, a controversial deviation from the parliamentary system.

To be sure, the reluctance of various Mori critics in the LDP to step forward is understandable. An intra-party attempt to oust Mori late last year failed when the LDP dissidents decided, under pressure from party powerbrokers, not to go through with it. Instead, the renegade faction was absent during that no-confidence vote.

"There is no means of forcing him [Mori] to step down, other than his own will. Midway, we decided not to support the no-confidence vote and ... as a result, our group was attacked with thunderous criticism from the public," says Diet member Taku Yamasaki, one of the leaders of the failed "coup" and the former chairman of the LDP's Policy Research Council.

Mori's tenacity appears to be a decision that lies less in his hands than with those who chose him for office, who are now trying to find a positive note on which Mori can leave. His faction is hoping to win points for the party by passing the year 2001 budget this week. It is to include a three-year deregulation plan that could promote competition in sectors such as communications, and allow greater flexibility in the school system, a matter Mori has said is of particular importance to him.

Much of the public frustration stems from jitters over Japan's economic slump. After showing hope for recovery last year, the economy has withered again, in part in response to the slowdown in the US. Much of what helped Japan and others in Asia out of the economic crisis that began in 1997 was US demand.

As consumer demand slows, Japan is facing many of the same problems it failed to tackle for a decade: the need for restructuring, tight relations between banks and the stock market, and the legacy of an inflated bubble economy that "burst" in the early 1990s. "There are balance sheet problems left over from the bubble: Corporations overborrowed, banks overlent, and there's been no way to correct it," says Ronald Bevacqua, an economist with Commerzbank. "The main safety net for the entire economy is the US, and that has fallen apart. They've put off this problem because they had this big global boom in the economy, and that boom is gone. It will have to get worse than this before they do anything."

The opposition Democratic Party of Japan, a party founded primarily by former LDP members who hope to present voters with a viable alternative, says the country can't afford to wait until things get worse. Tsutomo Hata, the secretary-general of the DPJ, presents a prescription that includes many ideas that will probably sound agreeable to the Bush administration, such as cutting back on big government and devolving many powers to the prefectural level.

Skeptics here, however, say the DPJ's members have failed to present a unified platform. Mr. Hata, speaking to reporters yesterday before the no-confidence vote, painted his party as a movement on the cusp of change, like Japan's late 19th-century Meiji Restoration that brought the country out of more than two centuries of isolation.

"We are rolling into the second phase of the political drama, and we are going to see a showdown," says Hata. "Now the anger of the citizens is almost reaching the level of 'people power,' " he says, a reference to popular uprisings in the Philippines. "If the current situation prevails, Japan will eventually sink."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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