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Hashimoto In Public Apology

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Japans Prime Minister, Ryutaro Hashimoto, Tuesday made an unprecedented public apology for appointing to his new cabinet a politician convicted of bribe-taking, saying he had accepted the ministers resignation.

However, critics said Hashimotos initial decision to include the disgraced politician in his reshuffle 11 days ago - and his subsequent back-pedalling over the appointment - had damaged his carefully crafted image as a reformist leader.

In a televised conference, Hashimoto apologised for creating political confusion by appointing Koko Sato, a member of the ruling Liberal Democratic party, as chief of the Management and Co-ordination Agency.

The influential agency is in charge of the governments administrative reform programme. Sato, 69, was convicted of taking Y2 million (10,000) in bribes from All Nippon Airways in the 1976 Lockheed bribery scandal and given a suspended prison sentence.

In the uproar following his appointment, Sato angered the public with his initially unrepentant stance and advice to critics to put the past behind them.

In a separate press conference Tuesday, Sato said he had decided to step down to prevent further upheaval. But he also implicitly criticisedthe political pressures surrounding the appointment and suggested he had been forced from the post.

Satos replacement is Sadatoshi Ozato, a long-serving but relatively low-profile LDP member who has kept clear of the scandals affecting so many other MPs of the ruling party.

Ozato, 67, held a number of posts in previous LDP administrations, including those of labour minister and head of the Okinawa and Hokkaido development agencies.

After the 1995 Kobe earthquake, he was put in charge of a special agency set up to oversee the reconstruction of Kobe. Political commentators were divided about the impact of Mr Satos resignation. Some believe Mr Hashimoto has emerged stronger than before. The LDPs two small allies, New Party Sakigake and the Socialists, had threatened to leave the informal coalition if Mr Sato did not resign. The two small parties provide the LDP with vital support in parliaments upper house, where it lacks a majority, and in the more influential 500-seat lower house, where the LDP has a precarious majority of 251. The two parties yesterday confirmed the continuation of their alliance with the LDP. Mr Hashimotos supporters have also claimed the Sato affair has given Mr Hashimoto an edge over leaders of the LDPs powerful intra-party factions. In spite of his position as party chief, Mr Hashimoto lacks his own factional power-base. Initially, he bowed to demands by power brokers in the appointment of Mr Sato, who belongs to one of four main factions in the LDP nominally headed by former prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone. Dan Harada, an independent political commentator, said the Ozato appointment is both unusual and logical. Unusual, because Mr Ozato belongs to a different faction from Mr Sato, which suggests Mr Nakasones credibility has suffered from the Sato appointment; logical, because Mr Ozato has been heading the LDPs committee on administrative reform and knows the issues well, Mr Harada noted. Hashimoto is stronger now - clearly he misjudged how badly people would take the Sato decision, but its over now and people will forget in a week or two, he added. However, opinion in the mainstream media suggested otherwise. Almost every leading newspaper and current affairs television programme believed Mr Hashimoto had damaged his credibility and lost public trust over the appointment. According to the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, the Sato saga shows that Mr Hashimoto is a lonely leader and that his power base within the ruling LDP ishelplessly weak. . . if he has no reliable base even within his party, then on what does his government rest?. Copyright Financial Times Limited 1997. All Rights Reserved.

First Published: Wed, September 24 1997. 00:00 IST