Foreign Minister Keizo Obuchi has decided to pursue the post being vacated by outgoing Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and has begun preparing his policy agenda, Liberal Democratic Party sources said Tuesday.

Obuchi’s decision came just as Hashimoto’s resignation was officially approved by the party’s decision-making Executive Council earlier in the day, and is expected to put the race for the next LDP leader into full swing.

The ruling party also decided to convene a meeting of all LDP Diet members on July 21 to choose Hashimoto’s successor as party president, who will almost certainly be elected new prime minister since the LDP, despite its election setback in the Upper House, still retains a comfortable majority in the more powerful House of Representatives.

Obuchi, also leader of the party’s largest factional group, is currently considered the top contender for the post of LDP president and is believed to be the favorite choice of the outgoing party leadership.

However, younger-generation party lawmakers say that a new LDP leader, who has to rebuild the party after its stunning defeat in Sunday’s Upper House election, should be elected by party members, rather than decided by behind-the-scenes consensus building based on factional power balance.

In addition to Obuchi, former Chief Cabinet Secretary Seiroku Kajiyama, a veteran LDP lawmaker who has advocated radical financial reform actions, and Health and Welfare Minister Junichiro Koizumi have been mentioned as likely candidates.

Some party members also began suggesting that former LDP President Yohei Kono should join the race.

LDP Secretary General Koichi Kato said the party will hold an election if party members fail to agree on one candidate.

Kato told reporters that forcing party members to agree on supporting one candidate for the top leader’s post would not produce good results. “In the past, selecting a new leader through discussions was said to be good politics, but now such discussions (behind closed doors) would invite criticism,” Kato said.

The LDP’s presidential election management committee is to hold a meeting today and decide on procedures for choosing a new leader. Officially, all the likely candidates remained quiet for the day.

At a Tuesday morning news conference, Obuchi refused to speculate on the succession issue, saying, “I must proceed with my responsibilities as foreign minister.”

But he stressed the need to find a successor who can iron out differences with opposition parties to gain their support for government policies, rather than just push policies through the Diet.

Koizumi, meanwhile, said he wants to be “supported for promoting drastic reforms of the ways the LDP has been handling things, including the privatization of postal services.” As for his view on a successor, he said, “We must find a person who can … hammer out policies that will be supported by the voters.”

Meanwhile, Hashimoto, attending a nearly one-hour meeting of the LDP’s Executive Council at party headquarters Tuesday morning, offered a deep apology over the party’s election loss, saying, “I have keenly realized my responsibility for the party’s huge loss in the Upper House election.”

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