Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was locked in a power struggle on Sunday over whom to back as the next prime minister after a top official backed a crafty veteran but other powerbrokers kept their counsel.
The LDP’s number two, Secretary-General Makoto Koga, ignited the race to select a successor to lame-duck Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori when he told a gathering on Saturday that he wanted his mentor, party elder Hiromu Nonaka, to take the helm.
It was the strongest statement yet from an influential lawmaker in the three-party ruling coalition as to who would be the best candidate, but the race stood at a standstill with Nonaka’s repetition of a flat refusal to take the throne.
Politicians in the ruling camp, led by the LDP, are keen to ditch Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, his popularity shredded by gaffes and scandals, ahead of a July Upper House poll in the hope of improving their chances.
For weeks now, party powerbrokers have been locked in talks behind closed doors to hammer out a replacement for Mori, whose single-digit support ratings make him one of Japan’s most unpopular prime ministers ever.
Sparking the power struggle was a promise this month by Mori to bring forward from September the election to replace him as president of the LDP. The new president is virtually guaranteed the premiership because the LDP dominates the ruling coalition.
One key to a final outcome may lie in what two influential members of the biggest faction in the multi-group LDP decide.
Faction leader Ryutaro Hashimoto, a former prime minister, and former Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki have kept silent.
Hashimoto, seen by many as a leading contender, has not stated his intention of running or of backing a candidate.
Critics of the 63-year-old say that if he took up the reins, the coalition could lose in July because the lone-wolf party heavyweight has already had to resign once as prime minister after the LDP was thrashed in a 1998 Upper House election.
Given that, Hashimoto could throw his support behind the powerful Nonaka — the faction’s de facto leader.
If that happens “Nonaka will have little choice but to run,” the Sankei Shimbun newspaper quoted an unidentified middle-ranking party member as saying.
Nonaka has ruled himself out — remarks seen by many observers as part of elaborate horsetrading for the top job.
Again on Saturday, Nonaka said he was not swayed by the remarks from LDP Secretary General Koga.
Powerbroker Aoki too has kept his counsel, warning only of the dangers of a split in the faction before the July polls.
But the LDP’s partners in the coalition favor the 75-year-old Nonaka. Its main coalition partner, the New Komeito party, welcomed Koga’s attempt to nudge Nonaka into the lead.
“For us, as part of the coalition, there is no doubt that we have high hopes for Mr. Nonaka,” the Sankei quoted one party member as saying.