Takebe now LDP No. 2, over Abe

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Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on Monday appointed Tsutomu Takebe, chairman of the Lower House Committee on Rules and Administration, as secretary general of the Liberal Democratic Party in a bid to press ahead with the postal system privatization.

Takebe, an avowed advocate of the privatization, took over from Shinzo Abe, who wanted out of the LDP’s No. 2 post. Abe was moved one rank lower.

“The prime minister told me to do my utmost to address issues like the postal privatization, by promoting better understanding within the party, because now is the crucial time for the reform,” Takebe told a news conference after his appointment was endorsed by the LDP Executive Council.

LDP Deputy Secretary General Fumio Kyuma, a 63-year-old heavyweight in the party’s largest faction, was appointed Executive Council chairman, replacing Mitsuo Horiuchi.

Former trade minister Kaoru Yosano, 66, was appointed chairman of the LDP Policy Affairs Research Council, succeeding Fukushiro Nukaga.

Abe’s request to leave the No. 2 post, ostensibly to take responsibility for the LDP’s poor performance in the July House of Councilors election, was widely seen as an indication that the popular lawmaker, considered a future party leader, may be trying to distance himself from Koizumi.

As it turned out, however, Abe, 50, in an unprecedented move, was made deputy secretary general under Takebe.

A year ago, Koizumi surprised political circles by appointing Abe as the LDP’s No. 2 man at an unusually young age for the influential post.

On Monday, Koizumi chose Takebe, 63, to succeed him apparently because the new appointee is one of the few in the LDP truly behind the postal privatization plan.

Takebe belongs to a small faction led by former LDP Vice President Taku Yamasaki, Koizumi’s longtime ally who lost his Diet seat in the general election last November.

While Koizumi’s Cabinet approved the government’s basic plan to privatize the postal operations and break them up into four separate entities in 2007, the prime minister must contend with the fact that many LDP lawmakers openly oppose the scheme.

Takebe’s ability as a top-ranking LDP leader is largely untested, while Yosano, though being well-versed with policy matters, is currently not affiliated with any faction.

Koizumi has repeatedly vowed to appoint those who support his postal privatization drive, and Monday’s reshuffle of the party’s top executive posts did not seem to cater to a factional balance of power. He did not include lawmakers from two major factions, one led by Shizuka Kamei and the other by Horiuchi.

“The course of Koizumi’s reforms is being closely watched by our party and all the people,” Kyuma told reporters, adding that differences within the party must be ironed out.

Before the government’s postal privatization bill is submitted to the Diet next year, it must go through the party’s policy affairs council and get final endorsement by Kyuma’s Executive Council.

“The postal privatization (movement) has become a major current already,” new policy chief Yosano said. “The biggest point for the LDP is how to carry out a better privatization.”