Campaigning for the Sept. 20 Liberal Democratic Party presidential election officially kicked off Monday.

Three lawmakers who advocate higher government spending are challenging the reform agenda of the incumbent party chief, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

In addition to Koizumi, former transport minister Takao Fujii, former LDP policy chief Shizuka Kamei and former Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura registered their candidacies at the LDP’s headquarters in Tokyo.

Some junior lawmakers within the LDP, including House of Representatives members Taro Kono and Hideaki Omura, had tried to field a joint candidate but failed to secure the minimum 20 endorsements from party lawmakers.

Each of the LDP’s 357 Diet members will have one vote, with a further 300 votes allocated to the party’s local chapters. Local votes will be counted along with Diet members’ votes on Sept. 20; results will be released the same day.

Formerly, LDP presidents had two-year terms, but due to a change in party rules, this month’s victor will secure a three-year term.

In light of the LDP’s majority presence in the Lower House, the winner will also serve as prime minister.

Given the support that has already been expressed by several intraparty factions, it is believed that Koizumi is close to securing a majority of Diet members’ votes.

The focus of the race has thus shifted toward the LDP chapters’ votes, with many of Japan’s rural economies having been bludgeoned by the prolonged economic slump and Koizumi’s reform policies.

If Koizumi, who still boasts a relatively strong public approval rating, fails to win a majority of the total votes cast, a runoff will be held between the top two contenders.

Some of Koizumi’s rivals say they may join forces to outflank him in the event of a second round of voting.

The focus of debate is fiscal policy. While Koizumi is trying to keep government debt from growing too fast, his challengers are calling for far more spending.

“The policy priority of Koizumi is wrong,” said Fujii, calling for more stimulus measures to support small and midsize companies.

Komura also called for aggressive infrastructure spending, though he also proposed that a third-party institution should be established to check the cost-effectiveness of public works projects.

These projects are often criticized for merely keeping inefficient “zombie” construction companies alive.

Koizumi himself released a set of campaign pledges, including a promise to achieve a primary balance — a condition in which expenditures excluding debt-servicing costs are fully covered by tax revenues — in the early 2010s.

But his policy paper does not include a pledge to realize nominal growth of 2 percent in fiscal 2006, conflicting with recent media speculation.

During a news conference, Koizumi made a vague reference to this issue, saying he would “steadily implement structural reforms along the lines of” a forecast made by the government’s Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy that nominal growth GDP would top 2 percent.

Other key Koizumi pledges include the privatization of the three postal services — namely mail delivery, postal savings and postal insurance — and the privatization of four public firms that build expressways.

But the paper is short on specifics as to how these goals may be achieved.

During an afternoon news conference, the four candidates also disagreed over future Cabinet appointments.

Kamei said key Cabinet posts should be filled by Diet members, while Koizumi reiterated that he would appoint “appropriate people to appropriate positions.”

He added that he would choose candidates who would cooperate with his election pledges.

Koizumi’s appointments of Financial Services Minister Heizo Takenaka, Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi and education minister Atsuko Toyama — none of whom hold Diet seats — has been lambasted by veteran party lawmakers.

Takenaka, a champion of austere fiscal and financial reforms, has been particularly unpopular among many LDP members.

“Diplomatic, economic and educational portfolios, whose policies are the basis of a nation, should be occupied by those who have been publicly elected and who can take political responsibility,” Kamei said.

Regarding foreign policy, Kamei criticized the government’s plan to dispatch Self-Defense Forces units to Iraq, saying the security situation is too unstable.

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