A no-confidence vote against Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori failed early today by a vote of 237 to 190 after rebel factions within Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party abruptly abandoned plans to join the opposition in seeking his ouster.
The vote means that Mori could limp along in office until July, when elections are scheduled for the upper house of parliament, or even until his term officially ends in September.
But it leaves the unpopular prime minister, whose approval ratings are below 20% in most polls, weaker than ever. Analysts said it probably spells continuing political turmoil for the world's second-largest economy.
The vote marked a humiliating defeat for LDP rebel faction leader Koichi Kato, who had been considered one of the brightest younger party leaders and the man most likely to succeed Mori. Kato, who had vowed to join the four opposition parties in voting no confidence in Mori, abruptly changed his mind at the last minute after realizing that 18 of his faction's 45 members would refuse to risk expulsion from the LDP by supporting the no-confidence vote.
Japan's leading newspapers today ridiculed Kato for cowardice, and opposition leaders accused him of betraying the public trust.
"Kato Is Pitiful," declared the headline on an Asahi Shimbun editorial. "Kato is not a man," seethed lawmaker Naoto Kan of the Democratic Party of Japan, one of the opposition parties that had sponsored the no-confidence vote against Mori. The Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest-circulation daily newspaper, summed up the ennui that many feel after eight years of political turmoil here with the headline: "A Long and Boring Drama."
The opposition parties argued that the gaffe-prone, scandal-plagued prime minister was unfit for office and unlikely to accomplish anything for Japan. But the mainstream of the Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP, while expressing little enthusiasm for Mori, was determined to put down the revolt led by Kato and the leader of another LDP faction, Taku Yamasaki.
The vote was held at 4 a.m. after a raucous session of parliament that was interrupted when a New Conservative Party lawmaker giving a speech defending Mori threw a glass of water from the podium onto the heads of opposition lawmakers heckling him from below.
While all 190 members of the opposition voted for the no-confidence motion, 53 legislators abstained from the vote, ensuring its defeat.
Mori, who has steadfastly refused to resign, said he "humbly" accepted the defeat of the no-confidence vote and would do his best to ensure Japan's economic revival. His top lieutenant, kingmaker and LDP Secretary-General Hiromu Nonaka, extended an olive branch to the rebels by declaring that he would not seek to expel party members who had abstained from the vote.
Kato apologized to the public but offered scant explanation as to why he apparently miscalculated so badly.
"We might have been able to win with a two- or three-vote margin, but the sacrifice would be too great," Kato said, apparently referring to the expulsion of his supporters from the LDP, which has dominated Japanese politics for the past five decades. "I lost, I disappointed people's hopes. I have no excuse.
"We lacked sufficient preparation and strategy," he said. "We must take one step back and save our strength for another day."