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The race for the presidency of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party officially got under way Tuesday as former Chief Cabinet Secretary Seiroku Kajiyama, Health and Welfare Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Foreign Minister Keizo Obuchi filed their candidacies.

The candidates have unanimously called for aggressive fiscal measures to reflate the ailing economy, and the campaign is expected to intensify in the runup to Friday, when the party’s Diet members and representatives from local chapters will vote for their next leader.

At a joint news conference at LDP headquarters in Tokyo in the afternoon, the three candidates pledged to regain international confidence in Japan by reviving the economy. Obuchi expressed confidence that the economy will pick up steam once his stimulus pledges, including a 6 trillion yen tax cut, are implemented.

Shortly after 11 a.m., proxies of the three candidates submitted a list of 20 Diet members recommending their candidacies to the party’s presidential election management committee. Those endorsements must be from Diet members belonging to the LDP. No other candidates emerged, and the registration procedure closed in 30 minutes.

Obuchi, 61, is seen as running ahead of the other two, with support from the party’s largest faction, which he heads, plus a majority of members of the LDP’s third-largest faction, led by former Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, and a group of legislators led by Taku Yamasaki, chief of the party’s Policy Affairs Research Council.

Miyazawa himself expressed his support for Obuchi on Monday. On Tuesday, LDP Secretary General Koichi Kato, who also belongs to the Miyazawa faction, also announced he will vote for Obuchi in the Friday race, saying that the LDP can be “united and exercise all the power under his leadership.”

The remarks by the two lawmakers are expected to solidify support for Obuchi among the faction’s members, though some have already announced their backing for Kajiyama. However, political observers say the outcome is unpredictable because a number of younger legislators and representatives of the party’s prefectural chapters have not decided who they will vote for.

Criticism is also spreading among junior lawmakers that the interests of major factions are dictating the selection of the new leader.

Kajiyama, 72, told the joint news conference that, if elected LDP chief, he will wage maximum efforts to resolve the bad loan mess handcuffing the nation’s banks. A decision must be made on how to resolve the bad loan woes and pull the nation out of the current recession, he said.

The veteran lawmaker said uncertainty over the health of the nation’s financial sector must be cleared to pave the way for a recovery. At the same time, he pointed out that efforts must be made to improve the international competitiveness of Japanese industry.

Asked about the reason behind the Hashimoto administration’s economic policy failures, Kajiyama said it can be partly attributed to a lack of knowledge on finance-related matters on the part of Japanese lawmakers.

“We should be humble enough to acknowledge that we failed to notice defects in the nation’s financial system,” Kajiyama said. “To make matters worse, we promoted the fiscal austerity policy before reforming the financial system.”

Earlier in the day, Kajiyama visited a Shinto shrine near the Diet building with about 30 supporters to pray for victory. “Now my heart is as clear as ever,” he said afterward. “I’m determined to devote myself totally to solving the economic difficulties the nation has faced.”

Koizumi, 56, told the same news conference that the LDP’s priority should be to regain the trust of the Japanese public and the rest of the world. To achieve that goal, he said, the party must exert leadership to reinvigorate the economy. “The question (in the race) is whether the people would have the impression that the LDP has changed — whether the LDP is ready to change,” he told the press.

Koizumi said he takes the outcome of the Upper House election very seriously. The result showed the voters are rejecting the status quo, and the LDP has a responsibility to listen to their voices, he said.

There is no quick and easy remedy for the ailing economy, he said, adding that the government must deal with the current problems from a long-term viewpoint. “Removing people’s anxiety over their future will be essential to recover the economy in the long run (by boosting demand),” Koizumi said.

Koizumi also called for fundamental reform of the nation’s debt-ridden social welfare system, indicating he would submit a relevant bill to the regular Diet session next year. Koizumi’s supporters, mainly members of a faction led by former Finance Minister Hiroshi Mitsuzuka, gathered in a meeting before noon to confirm their unity going into the race.

A number of younger LDP lawmakers who are critical of Obuchi and what they call party leaders’ “old-style, behind-the-scenes maneuvering in choosing its president” also attended the gathering to back Koizumi.

At the joint news conference, Obuchi, said he is confident the economy will recover once the promised measures, including permanent tax cuts and additional fiscal spending, are implemented “steadily and quickly.” He has pledged to implement tax cuts worth 6 trillion yen and an additional supplementary budget of about 10 trillion yen to spur the economy.

Obuchi, who has few enemies within the LDP because of his soft-spoken nature and consensus-oriented political style, said he is most suitable to be the new LDP leader at a time party unity is required to deal with the challenges confronting Japan. “We should establish political leadership in policymaking,” he said.

He has already called for freezing the Fiscal Structural Reform Law — the cornerstone of Hashimoto’s efforts to resolve the fiscal crisis — to give the government greater flexibility in stimulating the economy.

Obuchi also told reporters earlier in the day that it is good that the three candidates have opportunities to appear frequently on TV programs to state their agendas. He expressed hope that his personality is now better understood by the public through his TV appearances.

The three candidates are scheduled to make campaign speeches jointly Thursday afternoon.

The LDP’s 263 Lower House members and 103 Upper House members, including the 45 who won in the July 12 election, plus one representative from each of the party’s 47 prefectural chapters are eligible to vote in the election, scheduled from 2 p.m. Friday.

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