A Job No One Wants: Leading Japan ; Backroom Politicians Stumble for a Solution to a Disliked Prime Minister

Article excerpt

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. …