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Timing of Obuchi Funeral Questioned

May 15, 2000

TOKYO (AP) _ As senior Japanese politicians attended the wake of former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, the ruling party faced criticism Monday over plans to hold a state funeral shortly before national elections next month.

Newly elected Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto led a procession of solemn-faced dignitaries who gathered in an evening downpour to attend a vigil for Obuchi at a Tokyo funeral home.

Obuchi died at a Tokyo hospital Sunday after a stroke six weeks ago left him comatose. He was 62.

The wake was held hours after the government’s chief spokesman found himself forced to defend the timing of a state funeral.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki announced Monday morning that an official funeral would be held on June 8, less than three weeks before national elections tentatively scheduled for June 25.

Some opposition lawmakers accused the ruling Liberal Democratic Party of trying to turn public sympathy for Obuchi into votes for LDP candidates.

Aoki dismissed the criticism and calls for the funeral to be held after the election. He said the possibility of attracting a sympathy vote was ``never taken into consideration.″

Officials said they wanted to hold the state funeral as soon as possible after the return to Japan of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, who will be visiting Europe from May 20 through June 1. A private funeral was scheduled for Tuesday.

Whatever its motivation, the ruling party was likely to receive an electoral boost from a public inclined to share the pain of Obuchi’s death, analysts said.

``Obuchi is already being sadly missed, and people are sympathetic,″ said political analyst Hisayuki Miyake. ``This will certainly not hurt the Liberal Democrats in the elections.″

The LDP scored one of its biggest-ever victories at the polls in June 1980, 10 days after then-Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira died.

But the party may have to answer lingering questions about how its leadership reacted to the crisis provoked by Obuchi illness.

Aoki and other LDP chiefs have come under fire for trying to cover up the gravity of Obuchi’s condition after he collapsed on April 2.

They have also been criticized for choosing his successor behind closed doors. Yoshiro Mori was tapped for Japan’s top job by senior party leaders and later voted in by Parliament.

Obuchi had been dismissed as an unimaginative, status quo politician when he began his 20-month tenure in 1998, but won subsequent praise as an agile dealmaker on crucial bills to boost the ailing economy.

He used his consensus-building skills to push a number of tough packages through Parliament, including passage of controversial U.S.-Japan defense guidelines that boost Tokyo’s regional security role.

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