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In a bold and surprising bid to ward off a party rebellion, Prime Minister Junichio Koizumi on Sunday appointed Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe as the No. 2 man in his Liberal Democratic Party.

Abe’s appointment as secretary general, one of the top positions in the LDP, came fresh off Koizumi’s re-election Saturday as party president.

In another move at the top, LDP Deputy Secretary General Fukushiro Nukaga was appointed chairman of the Policy Affairs Research Council.

Mitsuo Horiuchi was kept in his current job as Executive Council chairman.

The appointment of the 49-year-old Abe to the LDP’s No. 2 slot stunned lawmakers and reporters in Nagata-cho.

“You never dreamed such a young man would be secretary general, did you?” Koizumi triumphantly asked reporters.

Since he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1993, Abe has won only three times in national elections. This is usually too short a political career to hold the party’s No. 2 position, considering the strict seniority promotion system that has dominated the LDP for decades.

Abe, a close aide to Koizumi, is highly popular with voters thanks to his tough diplomatic stance against North Korea.

Depending on Abe’s solid public support, Koizumi appears to be trying to contain a possible rebellion of party executives who have long called for removal of some of Koizumi’s close aides.

A sticking point in the shakeup of the LDP executive lineup was whether Abe’s predecessor, Taku Yamasaki — Koizumi’s closest ally — would retain his post.

Koizumi appointed Yamasaki as vice president of the LDP.

Some influential LDP executives, including Koizumi opponents who nevertheless voted for him in Saturday’s presidential election, have vocally called for Yamasaki’s removal as secretary general to reduce Koizumi’s power and thereby bleed momentum from Koizumi’s austere reform drive.

The position, which had been vacant, is considered a honorary post with little power. It is often given to a heavyweight lawmaker who has come out on the short end of a power struggle within the LDP.

Yamasaki’s appointment as a deputy party head will be a test case for Koizumi’s clout within the LDP.

It is believed that Abe’s appointment as secretary general will offset at least some of the impact of Yamasaki’s removal, and possibly further strengthen Koizumi’s power.

But some LDP members doubt whether the junior Diet member can handle the difficult task of mediating between Koizumi and the anti-Koizumi forces within the party.

“I won’t discuss that here,” Abe told a news conference when a reporter asked about his short political career and if Koizumi merely tapped him as a drawing card for upcoming Diet election campaigns. “Rather, I’d like you to see how I do from this point on.”

Many rank-and-file LDP members also called for Yamazaki’s removal because he has been tainted by a number of alleged adultery scandals.

The LDP secretary general is in charge of directing election campaigns for party members. Yamasaki’s tainted image would have been a serious liability when the elections come around.

“I know well about the situation of the party, so I asked (Koizumi) to decide on personnel matters to promote reconciliation within the party and structural reforms (of the economy),” Yamasaki told reporters in the afternoon.

The other top appointee, Nukaga, belongs to an LDP faction led by former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto.

The faction has been opposed to almost all of Koizumi’s economic policies, including his austere fiscal policy and moves to privatize postal services and special semigovernmental firms charged with building expressways.

“I’m not opposed to privatization of the road firms and postal services. But these are still mere policy slogans, so I’d like to consider how I can implement them,” Nukaga told Sunday’s press conference, avoiding substantial discussion on the politically sensitive issues.

With the new party executive lineup, Koizumi plans to form a new Cabinet on Monday — the next touchstone in his battle with rebellious party members opposing his austere economic reforms.

Coalition unity vowed

Leaders of the two coalition partners of the Liberal Democratic Party agreed Sunday to support Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, re-elected LDP president Saturday, in privatizing postal services and expressway-building public firms.

In line with the agreement, New Komeito and the New Conservative Party will cooperate with the LDP in Koizumi’s new Cabinet, set to be formed Monday, leaders of the two parties said after a ruling bloc meeting Sunday night.

The three parties also agreed to solve a stalemate by Sept. 25 in fielding their joint candidates in some single-seat districts.

Cooperating on the election is considered a key factor in maintaining the unity of the ruling bloc, as negotiations have been prolonged with no end in sight.

According to a basic policy document released after Sunday’s meeting, the new Cabinet will submit necessary bills to privatize postal services in fiscal 2007, and separate bills to privatize four expressway-building public firms in fiscal 2005.

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