The largest faction of the Liberal Democratic Party could not heal a critical rift Tuesday, with the group failing to field an official candidate for the party’s Sept. 20 leadership poll.

Though faction elders approved former transport minister Takao Fujii’s plan to run, he is not expected to receive backing from all of the group’s 100 members.

The faction will effectively allow its members to vote for whomever they like in the party’s presidential election, according to faction sources.

This is the first time the faction, led by former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, has been divided over who to support in a party leadership vote.

The schism in the Hashimoto faction is expected to greatly increase Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s chances of being re-elected party chief.

During Tuesday’s meeting of faction executives, they confirmed in a written agreement they will “warmly send” Fujii into the race, faction sources said.

The wording is widely interpreted to mean that Fujii is not the faction’s official candidate and no obligations will be imposed on members regarding who they vote for.

The wording was also intended to blur internal divisions, the sources said.

But strife within the Hashimoto faction was already clear. House of Councilors heavyweight Mikio Aoki had indicated that Upper House faction members “could take a difference course of action” if Lower House members tried to field a joint candidate, according to the sources.

Aoki is expected to support the re-election of Koizumi to take advantage of his high popularity as the party prepares for an Upper House election next summer.

The Hashimoto faction’s internal division is expected to favor Koizumi in the upcoming race.

Takashi Sasagawa, a Hashimoto faction member in the Lower House, announced earlier in the day he would give up running for the race and support Fujii’s candidacy.

In addition to Fujii, former Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura, former LDP policy chief Shizuka Kamei and former health minister Yuya Niwa have expressed their intentions to run.

Each hopeful must secure a minimum of 20 supporters within the party to become a candidate.

While none of the candidates are believed to be strong enough to beat Koizumi, a runoff will be held if Koizumi fails to win a majority in the first-round vote on Sept. 20, making it possible that the anti-Koizumi candidates could form a united front.

Koizumi would likely face a serious challenge if all of the anti-Koizumi forces combined their power in a runoff.

Indeed, Kamei has claimed that he has already agreed with party elders Hiromu Nonaka and Makoto Koga to form an alliance in a possible runoff. Nonaka is backing Fujii, while Koga has urged Niwa to run.

Whether Aoki can unite 42 Upper House members of the Hashimoto faction to support Koizumi is another focus of the election battle.

These Upper House members are believed to want to take advantage of Koizumi’s popularity for the next Upper House election, but many also rely on vested interests that have been targeted by the prime minister’s reform initiatives.

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