Pressure on unpopular Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori to resign intensified on Tuesday when a cabinet minister from his own ruling party urged him to make the right decision at the right time.
"I believe (Mori) will set a good example by making an appropriate decision at an appropriate time," Justice Minister Masahiko Komura said one day after Mori survived an opposition-sponsored no-confidence vote in parliament.
However, Japan's most unpopular prime minister in years vowed to battle on to pass next year's budget and restore the fragile economy to growth.
"I want to enact next year's budget (for the year from April 1) as soon as possible and play a major role in restoring the economy to growth," he told an Upper House budget panel.
Mori's coalition partners including the number two ruling party, the New Komeito, have made clear the vote did not imply they had given him their stamp of approval.
In what could be a sign of wavering support by a key party in the ruling three-way coalition, Labour Minister Chikara Sakaguchi said his Buddhist-backed New Komeito Party would open up discussions on its future role if Mori were replaced as chief of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
"If a new (LDP) president is born, we as a party would discuss anew with that president whether to form a coalition," Jiji news agency quoted Sakaguchi as telling a news conference.
It was unclear whether his comment implied a shift of the New Komeito, whose support is considered vital to keeping the ruling camp in power, on staying in the coalition with the LDP and tiny New Conservative Party if Mori resigns.
Lawmakers in the ruling camp are keen to ditch Mori to improve their prospects in an Upper House election set for July.
Losing the election would not immediately oust the current coalition but would set the stage for stalemate and force an early general election, not mandated until 2004.
Grassroots calls for Mori - his popularity at single-digit levels after a spate of gaffes and scandals - to step down are mounting from within his own LDP.
A poll showed that leaders of 25 of the LDP's 47 local chapters want Mori to go, the Aasahi Shimbun newspaper said.
On Monday, a band of Young Turk lawmakers petitioned party Secretary-General Makoto Koga to demand the prime minister make clear soon whether he intended to resign.
Opposition lawmakers as well as domestic media zeroed in on the apparent contradiction of ruling MPs voting against the no-confidence motion while secretly conspiring his overthrow.
"There is only one word to describe the current political situation: odd," said an editorial in the conservative Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper.
Lawmakers are eyeing a March 13 LDP convention as a de facto deadline for Mori to express his intention to step down.
Prolonging Mori's political demise is the apparent inability of party power brokers to agree on a successor and the reluctance of potential candidates to accept what might at best be an interim post if the LDP and its allies fare badly in the July election.
The New Komeito and the New Conservatives prefer wily LDP elder Hiromu Nonaka, one of the "Gang of Four" who selected Mori in a secret cabal last April.
SUCCESSOR DEADLOCK, POLICY WOES
Nonaka has said he has no desire to take the post and many younger LDP members fear his "shadow shogun" image would alienate voters already fed up with the party's secretive ways.
Other names in play include Mori's own chief lieutenant, reformist-minded Junichiro Koizumi, and former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, now a minister in Mori's cabinet.
The political stalemate could hardly come at a worse time.
Diplomats have been unable to set a firm date for Mori to visit the United States, despite hopes for a meeting with President George W. Bush to patch up ties frayed by the sinking of a Japanese trawler carrying students by a U.S submarine and a series of alleged crimes by U.S. military in Japan.
Tokyo share prices are hitting new 15-year lows almost daily, and Economics Minister Taro Aso said on Tuesday the economy was heading into a downturn amid falling prices.