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Dead Man Walking
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori may have survived a no-confidence vote, but his days are still numbered

November 21, 2000
Web posted at 3:45 p.m. Hong Kong time, 2:45 a.m. EDT

The no-confidence vote in Japan's Diet Monday night should have been high political drama -- the vote could have toppled Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and triggered tectonic shifts in the country's political landscape. But it turned into a game of high-stakes chicken, enlivened with dashes of slapstick comedy. And when the votes were counted, it was the tough-talking guy who wants to be Japan's Prime Minister who had chickened out.

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Koichi Kato, head of one of the biggest factions in Japan's dominant Liberal Democrat Party, last week threw down the gauntlet, saying he'd side with the opposition parties if they tabled a no-confidence motion against Mori. He had the votes to topple the Prime Minister if enough members of his faction and its allies backed him. There was even speculation Kato might join forces with the opposition, creating a major new party with enough clout to finally loosen the LDP's limpet-like grip on political power. The bold move triggered a week of furious backroom bargaining and public spinning as the elderly men who still run the LDP scrambled to quash the revolt.

The LDP political machine may be getting rusty, especially in urban areas. But party heavyweights like Secretary-General Hiromu Nonaka still know how to play hardball. Faced with a revolt that could have splintered the LDP, they threatened to expel party lawmakers who voted against Mori.

By the time the vote came, it was a foregone conclusion. With his gang of would- be rebels wavering, Kato got cold feet and abstained from the vote, ensuring it would fail. Already aware the LDP machine had triumphed once again, opposition leader Yukio Hatoyama warned the Diet: "The Japanese public will be disappointed. This turned out to be a storm in a teacup." At one point, the proceedings descended into farce as a conservative politician defending Mori threw a glass of water at his opponents in the opposition benches, prompting an uproar that only ended when he was removed from the chamber.

Kato's political future is now in doubt. Ahead of the vote, a majority of Japanese polled supported his push to topple the gaffe-prone Mori. But after backing down at the last minute, Kato's credibility as a reformer is in tatters. So is his faction, after prominent members publicly broke ranks with him. He has, as Hatoyama said, disappointed the public, big time. The influential Asahi newspaper headlined its Tuesday morning editorial: "Mr. Kato, How Pathetic." Says Yasunori Sone, an expert on Japanese politics at Keio University in Tokyo: "This was a total defeat [for Kato]. He lost this chicken game because he didn't have any guts."

Mori's political future is clearer -- he is a dead man walking. After a string of embarrassing remarks, his popularity is bumping along below 20% (he remained true to form ahead of the no-confidence vote, reportedly telling journalists waiting to hear his views that what he really wanted was a "nice, cold draught beer.")

The LDP faces a tough election in Japan's Upper House next year, so Kato isn't the only party member who badly wants to get somebody else into the post. To pressure Kato's allies to abandon the rebel ship ahead of the vote, the LDP's Nonaka suggested a party leadership convention could be held early next year, ahead of schedule. But there's little reason to expect any tectonic shifting there either -- the LDP has shown once again that it knows how to look after its own.

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