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Japanese Prime Minister Mori Survives Leadership Challenge Leader’s Rivals Call Off Their Attempt to Fire Him

By Doug Struck

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori survived a strong challenge to his tenure Monday when defecting party rivals called off a showdown in the parliament, apparently short of the votes needed to oust the premier.

The political drama, brewing for weeks and played out until a few minutes before voting was to begin, saved the ruling party from possible disintegration and Mori the possible embarrassment of being ousted after only seven months in office.

“We made an honorable withdrawal,” said Taku Yamasaki, one of the challengers to Mori within the Liberal Democratic Party.

Left unclear Monday was whether any backroom deal had been made for Mori to step down early, the chief demand of party dissenters who believe the gaffe-prone prime minister is a political liability.

Japanese television stations said they received a surge of calls and e-mails angry at what viewers perceived as a maneuver that extends the political status quo.

“Prime Minister’s Mori’s political life has been saved, at least for now,” said Minoru Morita, a political analyst.

Mori, 63, is wildly unpopular, even though the electorate had returned him and his ruling coalition to office in June. With a disapproval rating that reached 70 percent, Mori is seen as an anchor to some in his party trying to extend the LDP’s half-century reign over Japanese politics.

Party heavyweight Koichi Kato led an unusual public challenge to Mori, threatening to take a faction of disgruntled LDP members to join the opposition parties in a no-confidence motion. Passage of the motion would have required Mori to resign or call a new election.

Despite weeks of increasing pressure by Kato -- he insisted Mori’s tenure was threatening the nation -- the challenger announced minutes before the vote that he and his allies would boycott the vote.

“Our strength was uncertain,” Kato said later. “I didn’t want to force it and cause a lot of sacrifice.” Party officials had threatened to oust any members who voted for the no-confidence motion.

Without their presence in the Diet, the vote was guaranteed to fail. The voting was expected to be pro-forma, although it was delayed until past midnight after one member speaking on the motion threw water on his critics in the parliamentary chamber.

The leader of the main opposition Democratic Party, Yukio Hatoyama, expressed his disappointment at the failure of the LDP dissidents to carry out their vow and join his party to unseat Mori.

“They betrayed the expectation of the Japanese people,” Hatoyama said.

Kato’s public challenge to his nominal boss had gained a majority of support. His stand was applauded by a public apparently weary of the usual backroom politics.