The Liberal Democratic Party’s presidential race kicked into gear Thursday as four big names officially filed their candidacies, supported by their policies to lift the economy out of its rut.

Former Health Minister Junichiro Koizumi, former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, LDP policy chief Shizuka Kamei and Taro Aso, minister in charge of economic and fiscal policy, officially signed up for the election that will effectively select Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori’s successor.

With the campaign debates likely to focus on economic policies, the four appear to be divided over whether economic recovery should be placed ahead of fiscal consolidation.

While Koizumi proposed an annual 30 trillion yen limit on government bond issuance, Hashimoto, who once tried to move fiscal reform forward, reversed his position and pledged to continue the spending policies of Mori and his predecessor, the late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi.

Kamei, meanwhile, championed drastic tax cuts while Aso favored placing priority on the disposal of the banking sector’s bad loans.

Earlier Thursday, Hashimoto, minister in charge of administrative reform, officially declared his candidacy and apologized for the timing of the fiscal austerity policies he pursued as prime minister, which have been blamed for plunging the nation into recession.

Hashimoto said a “200-day plan” would be followed under his leadership, aimed at boosting the economy by compiling rejuvenation policies in the first 100 days and drawing up legislation in the next 100 days. His economic policies include strengthening the government’s checking system on bad loans.

Hashimoto also pledged to maintain the current coalition with New Komeito and the New Conservative Party.

In contrast, Koizumi said he would link up with any party — either a current coalition partner or an opposition party — that supports his policies.

“The opposition parties may support (the Koizumi administration) under certain conditions,” said Koizumi.

Koizumi, who left the Mori faction Thursday, said that if he is successful he will select Cabinet ministers according to their ability rather than bowing to factional strength.

The Kanagawa native strongly advocates privatizing the postal service, which prevented the Hashimoto faction from supporting him.

Kamei, who jointly chairs the party’s third-largest faction with Takami Eto, is the candidate who most strongly favors increasing government spending until the economy is on a stable recovery track.

The former police officer has promised tax cuts of several trillion yen through reviews of the income, consumption and inheritance taxes. He has also mentioned reducing the consumption tax from the current 5 percent to 3 percent.

Kamei also emphasized the need for a supplementary budget and to push public works spending.

Aso, the grandson of late Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, who signed the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty, said he supports the government’s policy of disposing of bad loans banks within three years.

But Aso stressed that he would not cut expenses while the economy is fragile, adding that national debt should be repaid after the economy recovers.

The race is the first since 1982 to field as many as four candidates. It is expected to be unusually fierce, partly because the largest faction has been unable to unify behind its leader, Hashimoto. the former prime minister was thus the last to officially declare his candidacy.

Kamei declared his candidacy earlier after apparently losing patience with the Hashimoto faction’s indecision. It was earlier believed that the third-largest faction, under Kamei, would support Hashimoto rather than fielding Kamei himself.

The fourth-largest faction decided late Wednesday not to field its leader, Mitsuo Horiuchi, and is now expected to support Hashimoto.

Despite Aso’s early interest in running, he had problems gathering the 20 supporters needed to file a candidacy. The faction led by Justice Minister Masahiko Komura came to his aid at the last moment and secured his candidacy.

The winner will have to garner a majority of the 487 votes — 346 from Diet members and 141 from the 47 local LDP chapters — in the April 24 election. If no candidate secures a majority, a runoff will be held between the two most successful candidates.

Most LDP prefectural chapters will hold a preliminary election involving all local party members but some will limit voting to senior executives.

Opposition forces join

Representatives of opposition parties will assemble April 20 in Tokyo to ensure their political voices are not drowned out by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party presidential election, sources close to the parties said Thursday.

The decision to convene the rally was made Thursday, according to the sources. The rallying cry for the opposition parties will be, “Is this the right way to steer Japanese politics?”

The gathering, to be held at a House of Representatives auditorium, will be attended by members of the Democratic Party of Japan, the Liberal Party, the Japanese Communist Party, the Social Democratic Party, Ecology Conference Sakigake and a group of independent lawmakers, the sources said.

The winner of the April 24 LDP presidential poll is almost certain to become the next prime minister, given the overwhelming majority the ruling coalition enjoys in the Lower House, which has the final say in selecting the nation’s leader.

Promises, promises, promises

The following are the major campaign promises of the four candidates for the Liberal Democratic Party’s April 24 presidential election.

TARO ASO: * Will not reduce state spending while the economy is still fragile. * Will have banks dispose of bad loans within three years. * Will establish a stock-purchasing body to absorb banks’ stockholdings.

RYUTARO HASHIMOTO: * Will not follow fiscally austere measures unless the economy is on a stable recovery track. * Will draw up within 200 days measures to boost the sagging economy. * Will restructure government-affiliated special corporations.

SHIZUKA KAMEI: * Will introduce tax cuts worth several trillions of yen and consider a temporary cut in the consumption tax rate to 3 percent. * Will consider a supplementary budget for fiscal 2001. * Will draft a new Constitution, part of which will allow Japan to engage in collective defense for its allies.

JUNICHIRO KOIZUMI: * Will limit issuance of government bonds to 30 trillion yen a year. * Will pursue future privatization of state-run postal operations. * Will consider the introduction of a popular vote to directly elect a prime minister.

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