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The three contenders facing off against incumbent Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in the Liberal Democratic Party presidential race battled on Friday, the final day before the vote, despite widespread forecasts that they would lose by a wide margin.

In fact, people in Nagata-cho, the epicenter of national politics, are now more concerned with the size of Koizumi’s anticipated victory in Saturday’s vote.

Former transport minister Takao Fujii, a member of the faction led by former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, convened a final meeting Friday to test the loyalty of his faction colleagues — and only 31 of the 100 Diet members from the faction turned up.

The group has been split between anti-Koizumi members who support Fujii and pro-Koizumi lawmakers who refused to openly rebel against the still-popular prime minister.

Fujii’s meeting contrasted sharply with a gathering of Koizumi’s supporters the previous day, when as many as 103 of the 357 LDP Diet members attended, including top party executives such as Executive Council Chairman Mitsuo Horiuchi and policy affairs chief Taro Aso.

“I am really sorry for Mr. Hashimoto as I see some group members cannot come up here,” said Lower House member Hiromu Nonaka, a heavyweight among the anti-Koizumi forces in the LDP, at Friday’s meeting of the Hashimoto faction.

The LDP president is virtually assured of a prime ministership thanks to the LDP’s solid majority in the House of Representatives.

If Koizumi is re-elected as LDP chief, he is expected to begin drawing up a new party executive lineup as early as Saturday afternoon before forming a new Cabinet on Monday.

The winning margin for Koizumi will affect the lineup of the new Cabinet and party executives, according to Diet watchers. Many LDP lawmakers, including those who support Koizumi, have been calling for the removal of some of Koizumi’s closest allies, in particular Financial Services Minister Heizo Takenaka and LDP Secretary General Taku Yamasaki.

A large winning margin would give Koizumi enough momentum to refuse such demands. A narrow margin will reduce his clout to handle the challenging tasks ahead, including the formation of a new Cabinet and implementing controversial policy proposals, such as the privatization of postal services and expressway public corporations, which are strongly opposed within the LDP.

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