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Japan's Mori survives no-confidence vote

But foes' pressure for him to step down is unabated

TOKYO — Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori survived his second no-confidence vote in Parliament on Monday, but pressure for him to go was unabated from opponents and even some allies worried over his dismal public support.

The lower house of Parliament voted 274-192 to defeat the no-confidence motion submitted earlier in the day by four opposition parties. Mori, whose Liberal Democrats hold a majority in the chamber, defeated a similar measure in November.

The vote gave Mori's enfeebled government a respite, but it was expected to be brief. Speculation was rife that he could step down as soon as this week as the LDP readies for its annual party convention March 13 and searches for a successor.

Mori showed no signs of backing down soon, saying he considered the vote a victory.

"Doesn't that mean that the Cabinet is trusted?" he asked reporters. "Doesn't that mean that I must continue working responsibly?"

The sharply worded debate on the motion in Parliament was further humiliation for a prime minister whose support ratings have fallen to under 10 percent.

Since he took office in April 2000, Mori has been embroiled in several scandals, ranging from allegations of personal misconduct to comments recalling the militarism of pre-1945 Japan.

"A person like you could be described with the phrase, 'He doesn't know what shame is,' " said Yukio Hatoyama, the leader of the largest opposition party, the Democrats.

The three-party coalition led by the LDP, in turn, criticized the opposition for paralyzing the government with political jockeying and distracting officials from pressing national issues, such as the economy.

"This is an attempt to plunge politics into chaos, taking people's lives and the economy hostage," said Koji Omi, an LDP lawmaker, as opposition lawmakers heckled him.

The political quagmire comes at a tough time for Japan. Stock prices have fallen to a 15-year low, unemployment is at a record high, and officials are worried about signs that recovery from a decadelong slowdown may have stalled.

The LDP is worried that Mori's unpopularity could severely damage it in upper house elections coming up in July, and it is eager to find a more popular replacement. The party is in the minority in the chamber and controls it only with the cooperation of coalition partners.

An especially poor showing by the LDP in July could strengthen an expected campaign by the opposition to push for snap elections in the more powerful lower house.

The dearth of support for Mori in his own camp was plain on Monday. Takenori Kanzaki, leader of the New Komeito Party, a key LDP coalition partner, said a defeat of the motion did not mean support for Mori.

"The motion is something submitted as a tactic to delay deliberations on the budget, so my party will vote against it," Kanzaki was quoted as saying by Kyodo News agency before the vote.

Rejection of the motion, however, "is different from problems with Prime Minister Mori himself, and does not mean that the premier wins a vote of confidence," Kyodo quoted him as saying.

Dissent came from inside the LDP as well. The vote was boycotted by former LDP Secretary-General Koichi Kato and six members of his faction, one of two groups that staged a failed revolt against Mori in November.

In a joint statement Monday explaining the no-confidence motion, opposition parties blamed Mori for the country's troubles, criticized him for a series of scandals that have tarnished his one-year administration, and called his leadership "confused."

"We must get the country out of this critical situation as soon as possible and restore the public's trust in their politicians," the parties said.

Mori narrowly survived a no-confidence motion in November after members of his own party who had threatened to vote against him backed down under intense last-minute pressure.

Mori has recently been under fire for continuing to play golf after hearing news that a U.S. submarine collided with a Japanese high school's fishing boat last month.

But the LDP, which has governed Japan for most of the postwar period, appeared to be having difficulty finding a viable replacement for Mori, whose public support is the second lowest for any prime minister since World War II.

Several potential candidates have said they do not want the post, and two others — Foreign Minister Yohei Kono and former Health Minister Junichiro Koizumi — are either involved in scandals or too closely allied to Mori.