The four hopefuls in the race to replace Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori remained divided Sunday over their prescriptions for Japan’s diseased economy.

With a little over a week to go before the Liberal Democratic Party’s April 24 presidential election, which will virtually decide the next prime minister, the four stepped up their verbal sparring over the campaign’s main issue: the economy.

During a televised debate, former health minister Junichiro Koizumi, 59, asserted the need to quickly reduce the nation’s towering debt and attacked the spending plans of his rivals.

“Japan is just addicted to debts,” said the maverick reformist, rated in straw polls as the most popular of the four. Japan must carry out debt-cutting reforms although these “would come with pain,” he said.

In a speech in front of JR Shinjuku Station in Tokyo, Koizumi also called for prime ministers to be directly elected by the people, a move he said would force his ruling party to reform itself. He said direct election of the prime minister would render factional politics in the LDP meaningless.

Former construction minister Shizuka Kamei, a staunch defender of the status quo and pump-priming policies, said Tokyo must stick to spending.

Kamei, 64, has said he will study the possibility of lowering the consumption tax from 5 percent if he wins.

“I think the kind of tax cuts that are most effective in boosting personal consumption should be carried out,” Kamei said. “Before everything else, we must achieve economic growth.” Kamei also said that a supplementary budget should be kept under consideration.

Former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, 63, now minister in charge of administrative reform, and Economic Minister Taro Aso, 60, sided with Kamei on that matter.

Aso stressed that Japan needs to get out of its deflationary economy, its first in postwar history, before tackling fiscal reform in earnest. He pledged to implement tax reforms that would make losses on securities trading tax-deductible for individual investors and to allow banks to carry out tax-free loan writeoffs.

Aso’s chance of winning the race is low because he represents one of the smallest groups in the ruling party. Hashimoto, widely seen as the front-runner because he leads the party’s largest faction, agreed with Kamei’s spending philosophy.

“My idea is rather close to Mr. Kamei’s,” he said. Reversing his previous tight-budget policy, Hashimoto said he was ready to revamp the economy with taxpayers’ money and more government bonds.

“I am fully aware that I made a mistake in the timing of fiscal reform.” he said, referring to his stint as prime minister. As a result, the outstanding national debt of both the central and local governments will reach a record 666 trillion yen by March 2003 — 1.28 times more than the nation’s nominal gross domestic product.

Economic gloom deepened further Friday when Japan downgraded its economic assessment for the third consecutive month. Analysts say Hashimoto is taking the lead in the race, but Koizumi could still cause an upset with votes from the party’s local chapters.

The next president will be decided by votes from the party’s lawmakers and 141 votes from its local chapters — three votes each from the party’s 47 prefectural branches.

Hashimoto’s candidacy has met strong resistance from young lawmakers in his 102-strong faction largely due to his unsavory image while the party prepares for key Upper House elections in July.

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