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Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi received a shot in the arm on Thursday when LDP heavyweight Mikio Aoki threw his support to the prime minister in the party’s upcoming presidential election.

Aoki leads the 42 House of Councilors members belonging to the Liberal Democratic Party’s biggest faction. His much-anticipated announcement is likely to boost the odds of a Koizumi victory in the Sept. 20 party election.

Another LDP faction, led by LDP Executive Council Chairman Mitsuo Horiuchi, remained in disarray over who it should support in the race.

A source with access to the closed meeting at which Aoki was speaking quoted him as saying he is firmly determined to support Koizumi.

“Believing that (Koizumi) will tackle economic measures and bring the whole party together in the effort, I support Koizumi,” he was quoted as saying.

Aoki, secretary general of the LDP’s Upper House caucus, is also a powerful member of the 100-member faction led by former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto.

Since former transport minister Takao Fujii, another member of the faction, is running in the race, Aoki’s support for Koizumi means that the faction members will be divided in whom they vote for.

Hoping to see Koizumi, who remains popular with the public, lead the party to victory in the Upper House election next summer, Aoki has long urged him to listen more to his dissenters within the party. They have been urging Koizumi to drop his austere economic policy and implement aggressive fiscal spending.

Koizumi says that “without reforms, no economic growth will be achieved. But I’d say without party unity, no reforms will be achieved,” Aoki reportedly said.

Koizumi, at least in public, has yet to make a clear commitment to changing his policy in economic management or to replacing economic ministers unpopular among his dissenters. Most notably among these is Financial Services Minister Heizo Takenaka.

But Aoki said he believes Koizumi will make the changes. The prime minister has already promised to reshuffle his Cabinet if re-elected as LDP chief.

Later Thursday, Koizumi expressed his appreciation.

“I am so grateful for (Aoki’s) support, coming amid a difficult situation within his group,” Koizumi said, referring to the rift in the Hashimoto faction.

However, Koizumi stressed he will not change his policies of privatizing postal services and public expressway operators.

“I will definitely push forward these reforms, and even if (Aoki) is against them now, I believe I can create an atmosphere in which (opponents) cooperate with me if I am re-elected,” he said.

Meanwhile, the 51-member Horiuchi faction, even after holding a series of meetings on Thursday, remained divided over whether it should field former health minister Yuya Niwa to challenge Koizumi.

Horiuchi has ruled out his own candidacy and expressed support for Koizumi’s re-election.

Some faction members are said to have expressed concern that any candidate emerging from the group would be no match for Koizumi.

But others insisted that somebody from the group should enter the race no matter what, although such opinions were the minority. This group includes Makoto Koga, former LDP secretary general, and some junior members.

Meanwhile, former Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura reiterated his resolve to join the party race the same day. He conceded, however, that he has yet to secure the minimum 20 endorsements from LDP lawmakers.

“At the moment, I have not received signatures from 20 people, but the condition is becoming ripe,” Komura told a gathering of his faction Thursday afternoon.

Komura heads a minor faction of 16 members including himself.