Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi tried Thursday to persuade two octogenarian former prime ministers to retire from politics because of their age, effecting a quiet exit in the case of Kiichi Miyazawa but running up against a brick wall in the shape of Yasuhiro Nakasone.
Political observers said Koizumi’s failure to persuade both men to quit may be viewed by voters as a leadership shortcoming.
Nakasone, 85, and Miyazawa, 84, had both voiced plans to run in the Nov. 9 general election for the House of Representatives on the Liberal Democratic Party’s proportional representation ticket — effectively defying a new LDP rule banning people 73 or older from running in that segment of the vote.
LDP executives had initially hoped the two influential octogenarians would voluntarily decide to retire.
But with official campaigning kicking off Tuesday and time running out, they left the matter in the hands of Koizumi, the party president.
Koizumi visited the Tokyo offices of Nakasone and Miyazawa Thursday morning. He asked them to not run in the election, citing calls within the LDP for the age limit to be applied without exception in order to accelerate a changing of the guard.
He added that, in light of the illustrious accomplishments of the two seasoned lawmakers, they could still make great contributions to Japan and the world even if they left the Diet.
“I cannot accept such a (request) whatsoever,” a fuming Nakasone told a news conference after his meeting with the prime minister. “It is absolutely disrespectful for (Koizumi) to come to see me all of a sudden.
“It’s political terrorism of sorts, like throwing a bomb at me.”
Nakasone said he rejected Koizumi’s request because LDP leaders in 1996 had promised to keep him at the top of the party’s proportional representation list for the Northern Kanto bloc for the rest of his life in return for his abandoning a bid to contest a single-seat constituency in his home prefecture of Gunma.
He added that he still needed to work as a lawmaker to realize his lifelong political goal of revising the Constitution.
The LDP is set to draw up a constitutional revision blueprint in 2005, when it marks the 50th anniversary of its founding.
“If (the LDP) says it doesn’t need elders, old people across the nation would be offended,” said Nakasone, who served as prime minister from November 1982 to November 1987. “It’s a mistake to do things just (to polish the party’s image for) the election.”
Nakasone hinted that he might run in a single-seat constituency if the party drops him from its proportional representation list. Since the LDP top brass have ruled out making Nakasone an official party candidate, however, he would probably have to run as an independent.
In contrast to the visibly agitated Nakasone, Miyazawa responded calmly.
“I would like to voluntarily withdraw from running,” Miyazawa told reporters after his meeting with Koizumi.
“I cannot embarrass the prime minister, the party president.” Miyazawa served as prime minister from November 1991 to August 1993.
“I would like to make my contribution to the party’s generational change,” he said.
Nakasone’s adamant refusal was a heavy blow to Koizumi, who is seeking to convince voters that the LDP has transformed itself from a party of veteran politicians steeped in old-style politics to one comprising younger, reform-minded individuals.
Koizumi’s appointment of 49-year-old Shinzo Abe as LDP secretary general was symbolic of this strategy, which has thus far been received favorably by the public.
But Thursday’s embarrassing confrontation with the party elders, coupled with the ongoing turmoil over the government’s efforts to sack Japan Highway Public Corp. President Haruho Fujii, have cast a shadow over Koizumi’s reform drive.
He nevertheless remained hopeful that Nakasone would relent.
“I did not want to ask my senior (lawmakers) to leave,” Koizumi later told reporters.
“But I do want to stick to the 73-year-old age limit without any exceptions, and I sincerely hope (Nakasone) understands and cooperates.”
Opposition parties, for their part, criticized Koizumi for his lack of leadership within his own party.
Yukio Edano, policy chief of the Democratic Party of Japan, said Koizumi’s failure to persuade Nakasone clearly demonstrates his lack of power within the LDP.
Meanwhile, Shizuka Kamei, leader of the LDP faction to which Nakasone belongs, lambasted Koizumi’s decision. “It’s suicidal for the party to disrespectfully treat someone like Mr. Nakasone, who has contributed so much to the nation,” remarked the former party policy affairs chief.
Yet support of this kind for Nakasone appeared limited to members of the Kamei faction.
“It’s about time (Nakasone) left,” said one senior LDP lawmaker, adding that many in the party feel the same way. “In politics, no one should be promised a seat for the rest of his life, because voters change over time and so should politicians.”
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