LDP race unofficially under way

by Sayuri Daimon

Staff writer

The secretary of a veteran Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker recently received a phone call from Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi.

It came immediately after her boss expressed his faction’s support for the prime minister in an interview with a major newspaper, and Obuchi was calling to express his appreciation.

“I was very surprised to receive a call from the prime minister. But I’m sure he has been making similar phone calls to other faction leaders to ensure their support for him,” the secretary said.

The official campaign period for the LDP presidential election doesn’t begin until Sept. 9, but the battle between the three candidates — Obuchi, former LDP Secretary General Koichi Kato and former LDP policy affairs chief Taku Yamasaki — is effectively under way.

Although Obuchi, who heads the LDP’s largest faction, is believed to be assured of victory, the election will be a test of the various policy measures he carried out in the past year. The outcome will serve as an indicator of how strong Obuchi’s support base is within the LDP.

The number of votes he can attract from LDP members will also influence the future course of a nascent tripartite coalition government comprising the LDP, the Liberal Party and New Komeito, because his rivals are critical of such an alliance.

Obuchi and his two rivals have already announced their policy platforms and are stumping across the nation to capture votes from the LDP’s rank and file.

While Obuchi, 62, is focusing on economic recovery, Kato, 60, promises to restore the nation to fiscal health and revamp the pension system to lessen people’s anxiety about the future.

Yamasaki, 62, meanwhile, is challenging a longtime political taboo by calling for constitutional revisions.

Obuchi, who was ridiculed for being a “mediocre person” in the last presidential bout, now enjoys more than 50 percent popular support for his Cabinet.

With his popularity apparently rising in tandem with growing confidence in the economy, Obuchi has centered his campaign on economic measures and renewed his pledge to pull the nation out of the economic doldrums.

Specifically, Obuchi is targeting economic growth of 2 percent by implementing further stimulus measures and cutting unemployment to around 4 percent by creating 700,000 jobs in the next two years.

“We are currently pushing a wagon loaded with goods up a hill, but if we let our hands off the wagon, it will immediately rattle down the hill,” Obuchi said, referring to the government’s efforts to shore up the nation’s economy. “So, we cannot stop our efforts until we are sure of an economic recovery.”

Yamasaki is also calling for active fiscal measures with the goal of achieving 3 percent growth by 2010.

He plans to invest 50 trillion yen in various research and development projects in the next decade and strengthen science- and technology-related industries.

Meanwhile, Kato, who promoted fiscal reforms as LDP secretary general under Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, is placing emphasis on restoring Japan’s fiscal health rather than active fiscal spending, and promises to put an end, by fiscal 2008, to the issuance of deficit-covering bonds.

He also contends that a consumption tax increase may be unavoidable in the future. At the same time, he is calling for using consumption tax revenues solely for welfare purposes and lowering the levy on daily necessities.

On the controversial issue of constitutional revisions, Yamasaki, who has also served as director general of the Defense Agency, says the Constitution should be amended by 2010 to enable the Self-Defense Forces to exercise Japan’s collective right to self-defense.

Kato, a former diplomat who is fluent in Chinese, is calling for the creation of a multinational framework for security cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region that will include China and South Korea. Once it is established, Japan may consider revising the Constitution, Kato says.

Obuchi remains cautious about such revisions. He maintains that the government currently does not plan to make constitutional amendments, but the Constitution will not necessarily stay the same forever.

On the proposed alliance between the LDP, Liberal Party and New Komeito, the candidates’ opinions are sharply divided.

While Obuchi hopes to successfully launch a new coalition government to ensure political stability, Kato and Yamasaki insist that New Komeito should stay out of the Cabinet unless it sees eye to eye with the Liberal Party on policy matters.

“The current (planned) LDP-Liberal Party-New Komeito alliance is not based on policy negotiations,” Yamasaki said recently.

Kato warned, “If the LDP fails to conduct the nation’s politics with its given seats in the Diet, it may eventually make a mistake.”

Their remarks are seen as attempts to differentiate themselves from Obuchi, who has already secured the support of major LDP factions, and to attract the votes of LDP members who are supported by conservative religious groups.

New Komeito is backed by Soka Gakkai, Japan’s largest lay Buddhist organization, and the majority of the LDP’s support comes from religious groups that take an anti-Soka Gakkai stance.

Although Kato and Yamasaki’s chances are slim, they are both hoping their presidential bids will put them in line as Obuchi’s successor.