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Japan's embattled premier finally agrees to step down

TOKYO — After weeks of speculation, Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori on Saturday promised ruling party leaders he would resign, signaling an end to one of the most unpopular administrations in Japan's postwar history.

"He said he wanted to push up the party presidential election from September. He said he feels he is responsible as premier," said Makoto Koga, secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, after Mori met with four top party leaders in a closed-door meeting Saturday night.

In the euphemistic language of Japanese politics, admitting "responsibility" and expressing a desire to hold early elections amount to an intention to resign — putting to an end the monthlong political guessing game over Mori's future that has helped send Japan's stock market tumbling to a 15-year low.

But with a dearth of credible successors, the future still looks cloudy. Mori is expected to stay in office until early April to give the ruling coalition time to select a replacement and to avoid confusion in an upcoming summit with President Bush. In the meantime, the interim leadership bears the burden of trying to keep the country from slipping into another recession.

Analysts say that with nationwide elections due in July, the LDP can ill afford such a buffer-zone if it wants to avoid a humiliation at the polls.

"The issue is how much the LDP can regain the public's trust before the upper house elections," said Nobuo Tomita, professor of political science at Tokyo's prestigious Meiji University. "The most important thing is to create a stable government that the people can rely on to get things done."

That promises to prove difficult — there are no clear leading contenders to succeed Mori. Several names, including that of former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, have been floated as possible candidates, but each has serious drawbacks.

Hashimoto was blamed for a major electoral defeat in 1998 after he decided to raise taxes. Another possible candidate, former health minister Junichiro Koizumi, is popular with the public but distrusted by many LDP leaders who view him as too reformist-minded.

The most serious obstacle for the ruling party's prime ministerial headhunters, however, is that nobody appears to want the job.

The LDP has so alienated the public that most people predict the party will take a beating in July's polls no matter what it does until then. That would probably cause the prime minister to "take responsibility" for the defeat, curtailing the new leader's term to a mere few months.

The party's fitful search also underscores the difficulty it has had to respond to the public's longing for fresh faces and more transparency in politics.

Mori was himself chosen behind closed doors after his predecessor, Keizo Obuchi, was felled by a stroke. The back-room dealing caused the public to turn against the Mori administration even before it was launched.

Analysts said sticking with the policy of secrecy will likely be costly in July's elections.

"This lack of transparency just makes the public think the LDP has gone from bad to worse," said Masumi Ishikawa, a political analyst at Tokyo's Obirin University. "There's no sense of trust in the party."

Speculation over when Mori would resign had been intensifying for weeks.

Mori took office last April, and his tenure has since been marred by scandals and frequent verbal gaffes, including remarks that echoed the jingoism of Japan's wartime leaders.

His public support ratings have plunged to the single-digit level, making him the second-most unpopular prime minister Japan has had since World War II.

In addition to Hashimoto and Koizumi, other top candidates to replace Mori are Foreign Minister Yohei Kono, and Chikage Ogi, who heads the Conservative Party, the smallest of the three ruling coalition parties. Though considered a long shot, Ogi would be Japan's first woman prime minister if selected.