Japan politicians jockey to be PM

TOKYO, Reuters

Behind-the-scenes maneuvering by Japanese politicians moved into high gear on Wednesday with the launch of a contest to lead the ruling party marking the start of a countdown to replace outgoing Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori.

Two contenders from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) tossed their hats into the ring, but former prime minister and clear favorite Ryutaro Hashimoto kept his cards close to his chest on the widely expected announcement that he, too, would enter the fray.

Hashimoto, who heads the biggest faction in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), spent the day in negotiations with his 102-strong group to seek their support and to win back some younger renegade members who have been critical of the former prime minister.

“If everyone supports me, I would like to run,” Hashimoto was quoted by public broadcaster NHK as saying. NHK said the marathon talks had ended by winning support for his candidacy.

The one-time reformer is expected to have to make compromises on policy if he is to become head of the multi-group LDP, and hence Japan’s 11th prime minister in 13 years.

“If I am chosen as a candidate, I must first apologize. The timing of my past policies were wrong. I thought the Japanese economy had enough strength, but that was not the case,” the Yomiuri Shimbun evening edition quoted him as saying.

Hashimoto, 63, will join self-styled reformer Junichiro Koizumi and the LDP’s outspoken policy chief, Shizuka Kamei, in the race for the LDP’s presidency, which brings with it the prime minister’s seat given the majority held by the LDP-led coalition in parliament’s powerful Lower House.

Economics Minister Taro Aso and former trade minister Mitsuo Horiuchi may also enter the lists by Thursday noon, when the LDP closes applications.

The LDP, which has dominated Japanese politics since World War Two, held a gathering of lawmakers to approve formally the election procedures and to set an April 24 date.

“If my leaving helps the party and the nation, there is nothing that would make me happier,” the hugely unpopular Mori told the meeting. “I hope you will choose a new president who can win the approval of the public.”

Each candidate needs nominations from 20 lawmakers — down from 30 in previous elections. The 346 LDP members of parliament will vote along with 141 votes from chapters in 47 prefectures.

Analysts expect a two-horse race between Hashimoto and Koizumi, and focus is already on who the other candidates will back in a run-off if no one wins a majority.

Two of the party’s smaller factions — one headed by Taku Yamasaki, the other by Koichi Kato — are set to support Koizumi, with whom they have long had close ties, Kyodo news agency reported. The two have a total of 48 members.

Koizumi, 59, told a news conference that revamping the faction-ridden LDP was essential for Japan’s future.”Change the LDP, change Japan. That is my slogan,” he said.

In a typically eccentric move, the relatively youthful contender announced on Tuesday he was leaving his faction to strike a blow against the traditional order.

“I want to defuse public distrust in factionalism,” he said as he formally announced he was running and added that he would never return to a faction nor form a Cabinet based on factions.

Analysts said that could improve his chances because the cliques running the party have become increasingly unpopular.

With the economy, the world’s second-largest, teetering on the brink of recession, the spotlight has fallen on the candidates’ economic policies. While Hashimoto is a self-proclaimed proponent of painful fiscal reform, he is likely to tone down his views out of concern these will not go down well with the party’s traditional supporters, including farmers and small businesses.

Hashimoto’s 1997 decision to raise taxes and cut spending was widely blamed for tipping the economy back into recession, setting the stage for an abysmal LDP performance in a 1998 Upper House election, a defeat that forced Hashimoto to resign.

Kamei, 64, favors fiscal spending to kick-start the economy and is seen as anti-reform. On Tuesday, he unveiled his policy platform, calling for tax cuts worth several trillion yen to boost flagging consumption.