As Liberal Democratic Party heavyweights continue to search unsuccessfully for a consensus choice to succeed Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, some relatively younger Cabinet ministers from minor factions have been mentioned as possible candidates.
The two most prominent are 60-year-old Taro Aso, minister for economic and fiscal affairs, and Justice Minister Masahiko Komura, 59.
Aso is a member of a faction of 12 lawmakers led by Foreign Minister Yohei Kono. Komura is chairman of the 13-member former Komoto faction, which is still named after its founder, the retired Diet member Toshio Komoto.
Such small factions are often mired in the power struggles of the larger factions that dominate party affairs, and their leaders normally stand little chance of being elected LDP president.
But the major factions are deadlocked over who will succeed Mori. Many within the LDP and its coalition partners want former LDP Secretary General Hiromu Nonaka to run.
However, Nonaka lacks solid support from within the very faction to which he belongs. The faction, which is the largest within the LDP and is currently headed by former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, is divided over two candidates from its ranks — Nonaka and Hashimoto himself.
Former Health Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who serves as chairman of another major faction led by Mori, has indicated his readiness to run in the presidential election. But many veteran members of the Mori faction — including the prime minister — apparently want Koizumi to give up his candidacy out of concern that such a move would put the Mori faction in confrontation with the Hashimoto faction.
There is speculation that if the major factions fail to come up with a consensus choice, they may agree to pick a compromise candidate from a smaller group. A younger leader from a lesser faction may also be a refreshing candidate for voters tired of party bigwigs.
The current predicament echoes what happened 12 years ago. Toshiki Kaifu, who was not even a leader of the small faction then led by Komoto, was picked as LDP chief after his predecessor Sousuke Uno stepped down over the party’s serious losses in the 1989 Upper House election. The Hashimoto faction, which has exerted strong influence over Mori’s government, may be able to retain control over party affairs by backing a minor faction leader as party chief.
The 75-year-old Nonaka mentioned Aso when he touched last month on the need to select the new party chief from the younger generation.
But some members of the Hashimoto faction have expressed concern that the group may again incur criticism for creating a dual power structure by controlling a prime minister from behind the scenes.
Both Aso and Komura remain mum on their intentions. A lawmaker running for LDP presidency must secure at least 30 party members recommending his or her candidacy, but neither the Kono faction nor the former Komoto faction is large enough to meet the criteria on its own.
Aso faces another problem. His factional boss Kono, to whom he has served as a close aide, was once mentioned as a likely successor to Mori, but Kono is now believed to have dropped out of the race because of the embezzlement scandal involving a former Foreign Ministry VIP logistics chief.
Political pundits say that if Aso runs for party chief, his relations with Kono and other veteran members of the group may be in trouble.
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