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I never said I would quit, Mori insists

TOKYO — Just two days after he reportedly signaled his intention to resign to ruling party leaders, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori told parliament on Monday that he never said he would quit.

Then he refused to talk about it anymore.

While Mori's protestations were not seen as a flat denial that he would step down within a month, his comments were a measure of the confusion and secrecy of Japan's political leadership.

"The nation simply can't understand why this is happening behind closed doors," Yasuko Takemura, of the Democratic Party, the largest opposition group, told Mori. "Are you concerned about the people at all?"

Mori would seem to have little choice but to step down. His support ratings are below 10 percent, and his one-year term has been marked by a constant stream of scandals and verbal and political missteps.

The prime minister has been unpopular since taking office last April. He was picked at a closed-door meeting of Liberal Democratic Party power brokers after Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi suffered a fatal stroke.

At Monday's parliamentary debate, Mori kept his plans to himself, dancing his way around outright admission that his government was near the end.

The debate, in an upper house budget committee hearing, began with a brisk opposition grilling of Mori over a secret meeting with ruling leaders over the weekend at which he reportedly agreed to step down.

The meeting, however, was followed by more secrecy. No official announcement was made after the talks late Saturday, and Mori and other top party officials have not held a news conference.

Instead, the news came out indirectly: a member of Mori's ruling coalition confirmed afterward that he had indicated he will quit after this year's budget is passed. That is expected later this month.

But even that was not clear. Mori reportedly indicated his willingness to quit by agreeing to hold early elections for Liberal Democratic Party president, which he holds concurrently with that of prime minister.

Because of the Liberal Democrats' power in parliament, the prime minister is usually also LDP president. The party holds its annual convention Tuesday, but has not set a date for president elections.

Mori indicated in parliament on Monday morning that he was open to the idea of early party elections, but said that was not a resignation offer. His term as party president expires in September.

"I did not tell the party leaders I would resign," he said.

"I don't feel I should talk about such future matters," he added. "I want to listen carefully to the voices within the party and outside of it, and make my decision."

He even appeared to step back somewhat from that statement in the afternoon session, saying that he had no idea whether LDP presidential elections would take place early or not.

"Are you going to quit the prime minister's post when you decide that you are not running for LDP president?" asked Giichi Tsunoda, of the opposition Democrats.

Mori said: "I don't think it's the appropriate time for me to answer your question."

The intensifying calls for Mori to step down come at a sensitive time for the LDP. The party is trying to push this year's budget through the parliament, and is also eager to go ahead with summits with President Bush on March 19 and Russian President Vladimir Putin on March 25.

Despite his evasiveness, Mori doesn't have much time left.

Elections for the parliament's upper house are to be held in July, and many lawmakers in the LDP's three-party ruling coalition fear Mori's unpopularity could hurt them at the polls.

But the fracas over Mori's intentions has created another potential image disaster for them. The Democratic Party and other opposition groups said Monday they would submit a censure motion against Mori, and push for him to quit right away.

"What you must do now is resign immediately," said Tsunoda.