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Former Liberal Democratic Party Secretary General Koichi Kato took the helm of Finance Minister Kiichi Miyazawa’s LDP faction Tuesday, after 15 members departed in dissent.

The faction now has 70 lawmakers, after 15 House of Representatives members who support former Deputy Prime Minister Yohei Kono quit the group Monday. Kono, 61, left the faction in 1994.

Miyazawa, 79, handed over the leadership to Kato, 59, at an extraordinary general faction meeting at its office. “Because everyone agrees no one but Kato would be my successor, I would like all the members to endorse him as the new head of the faction,” Miyazawa said. The members applauded in approval.

Kato is the faction’s sixth leader. The Kochi-kai faction was established in 1957 by the late Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda.

After the meeting, Kato told reporters he hopes to encourage the members to fully exercise their abilities for the sake of the LDP and the nation.

Although Kato has been critical of a planned LDP-Liberal Party coalition government, he said it may be one way for the LDP to expedite Diet business as long as the party’s basic policies are maintained. “I have been saying that it would not be good for the party to quickly form a coalition with the Liberal Party,” Kato said. “But if the LDP’s basic policies can be maintained, a LDP-Liberal Party coalition may be one way.”

But he questioned whether the planned coalition will help improve the LDP’s chances in elections.

Although he did not express plans to run for the party’s presidency next year, Kato said he will publish a basic policy platform next month. His aides meanwhile said Kato aims to reinforce his power base to prepare for next fall’s party leadership race.

Kato also called the defections regrettable but noted it is natural that some would want to support Kono. “It is not good for the faction to have such members remain in the group against their will,” he said.

Kato and his supporters have been critical of the planned coalition with the Liberal Party, while the Kono group supports the alliance.

Kono left the Miyazawa group in December 1994 and does not belong to a faction.

He was once concurrently deputy prime minister and foreign minister while heading the LDP between 1994 and 1995.

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