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Garnering support in the Liberal Democratic Party for former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto before Tuesday’s LDP presidential poll was no easy task for staffers.

“Even if I asked them to vote for (Hashimoto), they didn’t give me a clear response,” one staffer told a recent meeting of the Hashimoto faction, the LDP’s largest.

Another Hashimoto campaigner agreed that optimism may be unrealistic in the preliminary round of the LDP election, which will see roughly 2.4 million rank-and-file party members nationwide vote on Yoshiro Mori’s successor as LDP chief.

While Hashimoto is considered to have the edge in terms of votes by LDP Diet members, the preliminary race is causing concern amid so much public attention. His main rival, Junichiro Koizumi, an ex-health minister with strong popular appeal, is counting on the local votes for an upset victory.

The four candidates in the race see the preliminary round as essential because its results could affect the April 24 vote by the party’s Diet members and the final outcome of the election.

Some dissident junior lawmakers in the Hashimoto faction, which had long boasted iron-clad solidarity, say they may not back Hashimoto and are calling on their colleagues in other factions to vote based on personal opinions rather than on factional lines.

“I will vote for Mr. Hashimoto if my hometown LDP members choose him,” said Hideaki Omura, a Lower House member of the Hashimoto faction. “But if Mr. Koizumi comes in first, I may cast my ballot for him.”

The two-stage race will see 487 votes cast — 346 from LDP Diet members and 141 local votes, or three from each of the 47 LDP prefectural chapters.

Local party members cast votes by mail, which are then collated by local chapters to determine the candidate who will receive the votes. Most of the results of the preliminary race will be known by Monday.

All but five of the LDP’s 47 prefectural chapters have reportedly adopted a winner-take-all system, whereby all three of their votes will go to the candidate with the most support in the prefecture.

Even though Hashimoto’s faction has 101 Diet members, a possible landslide win by Koizumi in the preliminary race could tip the balance in his favor.

Media polls and political pundits suggest the preliminary stage will be a two-horse race, with Taro Aso, state minister in charge of economic and fiscal policy, and LDP policy chief Shizuka Kamei unlikely to receive much support from the rank-and-file. Forecasts are mixed, however, over who will win.

Recent media surveys indicate Koizumi is favored by local party members sensitive to popular sentiment against the LDP, while experts say the Hashimoto faction’s grip on industry groups should ensure organized votes for him.

Koizumi, with his reformist image, is forecast to win votes in urban areas such as Tokyo and Kanagawa, while Hashimoto may dominate in rural areas, such as his home prefecture of Okayama.

While both camps are stressing the importance of the preliminary race, the strategies they have taken are markedly different. Koizumi is targeting rank-and-file members not closely tied to special interest groups, while Hashimoto is relying on the traditional vote-gathering machine of industry groups.

Koizumi has taken to the streets with Makiko Tanaka, a maverick LDP lawmaker who also claims wide public popularity. His decision to leave Mori’s faction, the LDP’s second-largest, when he entered the party race last week is seen as an effort to win cross-factional votes. He has vowed to eliminate factional politics.

Since the current power balance among LDP factions makes it unlikely Koizumi will win a majority of Diet members’ votes, it is an “absolute necessity” for him to win the preliminary race, a source within the Koizumi campaign said.

If Koizumi wins the preliminary race, it will be difficult for Diet members to simply ignore the local votes from their constituencies, the source said, suggesting that the Koizumi camp is pinning its hopes on lawmakers from rival factions crossing over to vote for him.

Hashimoto is similarly desperate to win rank-and-file support. His leadership could be tainted by charges of being saved by factional interests if he trails Koizumi in the local votes but wins the overall race, a senior Hashimoto faction member said.

Political commentator Minoru Morita, who believes Hashimoto has the edge over Koizumi, said the outcome of the preliminary race will determine the foundation of the next administration regardless of the overall winner.

“If a candidate who failed to come in first in the preliminary round wins the party election, the foundations of his Cabinet will be weak,” Morita predicted.

This could in turn lead to the LDP being criticized for picking another leader not backed by popular mandate. Morita said this may weaken the LDP’s position ahead of the crucial Upper House election in July — a prospect party elders desperately want to avoid and one that spurred the move to oust the unpopular Mori in the first place.

Unlike Koizumi, the Hashimoto camp is focusing on securing block votes from industry groups, which reportedly account for roughly 65 percent of the 2.4 million registered party members.

When the Hashimoto faction officially endorsed its leader’s candidacy in the race April 12, representatives from 18 industry and other groups that have solidly supported the LDP were present to rally behind him.

The largest of these groups, Taiju, is comprised of incumbent and retired chiefs of “tokutei” rural post offices and claims 240,000 LDP members within its ranks. It is a longtime supporter of Yutaka Okano, a Hashimoto faction heavyweight. Koizumi is unacceptable for this group because of his pet project to privatize the state-run postal business.

The Japan War-Bereaved Association, a group of families of Japanese soldiers who died during the war, is another solid LDP supporter with about 110,000 party members. Hashimoto once served as chairman of this group.

Other major LDP supporters include the Japan Medical Association and other groups in the medical and welfare profession, which are likely to support Hashimoto, one of the LDP’s leading “kosei-zoku” (welfare-lobby backed) politicians. Despite these advantages, the Hashimoto camp is uneasy. Although his campaign staff are turning the screws on these groups to ensure they vote for Hashimoto, it is unclear whether they will do so. LDP losses in recent gubernatorial elections in Nagano, Chiba and Akita point to the fact that industry group members are not as reliable as they used to be.

Some industry groups seem reluctant to fully support a single candidate since they support lawmakers in various LDP factions.

“(The party race) is like a quarrel among brothers,” said a senior member of a construction industry group, who asked not to be named. The industry is said to have about 180,000 LDP members. “If we support a certain candidate, we will obviously be attacked by other construction industry-backed Diet members supporting his rival.”

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