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Keizo Obuchi was elected president of the Liberal Democratic Party on Friday, defeating two rivals by a large margin in a race held to replace the departing LDP leader, Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto.

In a secret vote by 365 of the party’s 367 Diet members plus one delegate from each of the party’s 47 prefectural chapters, Obuchi won 225 votes against 102 votes cast for former Chief Cabinet Secretary Seiroku Kajiyama and 84 for Health and Welfare Minister Junichiro Koizumi. One vote was counted as invalid.

Obuchi won 19 more votes than what he needed to ensure victory in the first ballot. Contrary to earlier expectations, votes for Kajiyama outnumbered those for Koizumi.

Obuchi, 61, currently foreign minister in the Hashimoto Cabinet, is almost certain to be elected prime minister in a Diet vote Thursday; the LDP holds a solid majority in the powerful Lower House despite its stunning setback in the July 12 Upper House election.

“I keenly feel my responsibility (for leading the LDP) at this crucial time. I hope to make utmost efforts, for the party and the nation, to overcome the ongoing crisis,” Obuchi told his party colleagues immediately after he was elected. He also said he would try his best to keep the party united.

The LDP race was necessitated last week when Hashimoto announced he would step down to take the blame for the July 12 election.

Because Hashimoto is resigning halfway through his second two-year term as LDP chief, Obuchi’s tenure will run through September 1999, when Hashimoto’s was to end.

Hashimoto’s Cabinet is scheduled to resign en masse prior to Thursday’s opening of an extraordinary Diet session. Obuchi, who will probably form his Cabinet right after his Diet appointment as prime minister, is scheduled to deliver his first Diet policy speech as prime minister on Aug. 7.

Obuchi’s ascension comes as the nation is mired in its worst economic slump in recent memory. Japan is being urged by other major industrialized nations, particularly the United States, as well as its Asian neighbors to pull its economy out of the doldrums.

During the campaign for Friday’s election, Obuchi pledged to freeze the Fiscal Structural Reform Law, the core of the Hashimoto administration’s efforts to regain the nation’s fiscal health, to allow for greater flexibility in stimulus spending.

Obuchi specifically pledged 6 trillion yen in tax cuts and an additional supplementary budget worth 10 trillion yen. He said deficit-covering bonds would be issued to cover the measures.

He has promised to ensure the continuity of the Hashimoto government’s foreign policy, and in particular expressed eagerness to carry on the task of improving relations with Russia, with an eye on Hashimoto’s goal of signing a World War II peace treaty with Moscow by 2000.

Once he becomes prime minister, the opposition camp, buoyed by its recent gains in the Upper House election, is expected to pressure Obuchi to dissolve the Lower House and call for a general election.

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