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Timing of Obuchi Funeral Draws Fire

May 15, 2000

TOKYO (AP) _ A state funeral for former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi will be held June 8, the government said today, building expectations of a sympathy vote for Japan’s ruling party in elections later next month.

The prime minister’s office provided no further details in its announcement. Obuchi died at a Tokyo hospital Sunday after a stroke six weeks ago left him comatose. He was 62.

Officials said they wanted to hold the official 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.

But the timing of the funeral drew criticism from some opposition lawmakers who labeled it a ploy to boost the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s prospects ahead of parliamentary elections that are expected to be held June 25 _ Obuchi’s birthday.

In a precedent for such a move, the LDP scored one of its biggest-ever victories at the polls in June 1980, 10 days after then-Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira died in office.

Hundreds of politicians, business leaders and supporters visited Obuchi’s private residence today. A private funeral will be held Tuesday.

Although a sympathy vote is expected, analysts noted that complaints over the administration’s handling of the crisis could work against the ruling party.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki and other party leaders have come under fire for trying to cover up the gravity of Obuchi’s condition after he collapsed. They have also been criticized for the secretive way in which they chose his successor, Yoshiro Mori, who was later approved by a vote of Parliament.

Such concerns have only deepened following Obuchi’s death.

In a news conference one day after Obuchi’s collapse, Aoki said that before his condition worsened, the prime minister personally asked him to take over. Aoki said he and Obuchi were alone in the hospital room at the time.

But in his first public comments since Obuchi’s collapse, Yoshikuni Mizuno, a doctor who treated Obuchi, said Sunday he was surprised by that claim because Obuchi was not fully coherent even before he slipped into the final coma.

``We believe that the doctor’s comments have deepened the doubts,″ said Kenji Ozeki, an official with the Democratic Party, Japan’s largest opposition bloc in Parliament. ``We will continue to pursue the issue further.″

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.

Besides his economic policies, he also used his skills to push a number of tough packages through Parliament, including controversial U.S.-Japan defense guidelines that boost Tokyo’s regional security role.

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