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Tuesday, February 20, 2001

Japanese political
leaders meet
in private

Prime Minister Mori --criticitized
for his response to the ship's sinking
and for other issues -- may be
forced to resign soon


Bullet Salvage decision slow
Bullet Ehime mayor coming in
Bullet Video shows damage
Bullet Japanese leaders meet
Bullet Sub captain mum
Bullet Tenn. town support

TOKYO -- Maneuvers by Japan's ruling coalition to topple unpopular Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori shifted to secret backroom meetings today as speculation persisted that he would be forced to resign soon.

But just as difficult as it is for Mori to keep a grip on power, so too is finding someone to become Japan's ninth prime minister in 10 years.

Lawmakers in Mori's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and their two coalition partners want to oust Mori as head of the world's second-richest nation because they fear a rout in elections for the Upper House in late July if he stays in the job.

Mori has run into trouble for gaffes and blunders, his slow approach to the need to reform the flagging economy and most recently for his nonchalant response when a U.S. nuclear submarine rammed and sank a Japanese trawler carrying fisheries students, leaving nine people missing and presumed dead.

Speculation has mounted that leaders in Mori's three-way ruling coalition will force him to step down as early as next month, but lack of consensus on who will eventually replace him appears to be causing some delay.

Several names have been floated as possible replacements, with Junichiro Koizumi, the pro-reform head of Mori's own faction in the LDP, seen as one frontrunner.

LDP top powerbroker Hiromu Nonaka -- himself mentioned as a possible successor -- held talks today with fellow party heavyweight, Mikio Aoki, igniting speculation that the two discussed a successor to Mori.

Mori himself met with Nonaka, LDP policy chief Shizuka Kamei and LDP Secretary-General Makoto Koga, domestic media said.

Mori sought the others' help in enacting the budget swiftly and told them, "I will do my best by straightening myself up," Kyodo news agency reported.

The opposition camp turned up the heat on Mori, with leaders of four main opposition parties rallying in central Tokyo and demanding the prime minister's immediate resignation.

"The resignation of Prime Minister Mori would be Japan's best form of crisis management," Democratic Party secretary general Naoto Kan told the rally.

New opinion polls showed Mori's already low support had fallen to levels that have proved fatal to previous leaders.

The latest survey showed 82.4 percent of voters polled over the weekend by private broadcaster Nippon Television said they did not support him, a record high. A mere 5.4 percent supported the burly, rugby-loving prime minister.

A survey of LDP lawmakers in the Upper House showed that only four of 45 Upper House lawmakers who responded to the survey said Mori should not resign, the daily Yomiuri Shimbun said, while 21 said they hoped he would quit soon.

Economics Minister Taro Aso defended Mori but hinted that his political future could be cut short, saying Japan's 126 million people seemed tired of government by the LDP old guard.

"I think the Japanese are expecting a leader from a new generation who thinks differently," he said.

"A few years ago I thought voters weren't really that ready for a big change, since that would come with some pain. But now I think they are."

Yet with few politicians eager to take the poison chalice that the top job has become ahead of a likely electoral defeat, finding a successor within the LDP is proving a difficult task.

That has prompted some tabloids and pundits to posit New Conservative Party chief Chigake Ogi, a former actress who heads the tiniest ruling party, as a possible candidate.

"The tabloids are writing about me (as prime minister) using the word 'desperation,'" she told reporters. "Stop playing with me. I think I know better than anybody what I can do."

The successor dilemma could prolong Mori's tenuous hold on power.

"I think it could stretch til April, given the perverse dynamics inside the LDP," one foreign analyst said.

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