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The race for the next Liberal Democratic Party president heated up Friday as both Ryutaro Hashimoto, minister in charge of administrative reform, and former posts minister Junichiro Koizumi indicated that they are ready to run.

The party election will effectively determine the next prime minister, as the LDP-led coalition holds a majority in the Diet.

While other LDP factions continued to discuss whether they will field a candidate for the April 24 vote, many observers say that at this point Hashimoto and Koizumi are the main contenders.

“As a politician, I am honored. . . . I will have (the members of my faction) make the decision,” Hashimoto said Friday morning, referring to mounting calls within his faction — the largest in the LDP — for him to run.

He was speaking at a news conference following a Cabinet meeting in which Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori officially conveyed his intention to resign.

“I believe public trust in politics must be restored under a new administration, while (the new team) will have to continue to tackle piles of domestic and foreign tasks,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda quoted Mori as saying.

As a member of the current Cabinet, Hashimoto had been keeping a low profile on the issue of a post-Mori Cabinet.

Amid the rising calls for him to enter the race and Mori’s comments to his ministers, however, Hashimoto now appears willing to throw his hat into the ring.

Meanwhile, Koizumi, the nominal head of Mori’s faction, told a gathering in the city of Omagari, Akita Prefecture, “I would be called a coward, that I was afraid of losing, if I did not run. I must burn my bridges and run on behalf of (bettering) Japan.”

Many political pundits, however, remain skeptical of whether Koizumi can drum up enough support among his party colleagues. The 59-year-old has long taken the controversial position of calling for the privatization of the three postal services — mail delivery, postal savings and postal life insurance.

The likelihood of Hashimoto running in the election grew Thursday night after an influential member of his faction said it would not field former LDP Secretary General Hiromu Nonaka, who was widely considered the front-runner. Nonaka extended his support to Hashimoto.

“We would like to wrap up our discussions within the faction toward uniting under the initiative, Mr. Hashimoto,” Nonaka told reporters Friday.

Also on Thursday, LDP Secretary General Makoto Koga said the LDP will hold the presidential election April 24.

As for Mori, Fukuda told reporters Friday that the prime minister thought the timing was right for making his official resignation announcement, partly because the much-anticipated emergency economic package was successfully approved by the government and the ruling camp earlier in the day.

Mori’s resignation notice came a year and a day after he took office, following a secret meeting among LDP power brokers to select a replacement for Keizo Obuchi, who had been felled by a stroke that ultimately proved fatal.

Amid critically low popularity ratings that dipped below 10 percent in February, Mori proposed to top LDP executives on March 10 that the party move up the presidential election, originally scheduled for September, so the LDP-led ruling coalition can face the crucial Upper House election in July under a fresh leader.

Top government spokesman Fukuda added that Mori would soon hold a news conference to directly convey his decision to the public.

Reacting to Mori’s announcement, New Komeito, a junior partner of the LDP-led coalition, commented that the decision by the gaffe-prone leader could not be avoided.

“It’s regrettable, but I think it was inevitable. Prime Minister Mori made the decision as public support dived following his misleading remarks and a string of political scandals,” said New Komeito leader Takenori Kanzaki, the leading advocate for replacing Mori.

Said Finance Minister Kiichi Miyazawa: “As a whole, I am impressed that Prime Minister Mori did his job in a cheerful manner in spite of criticism from all quarters.”

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