Executives of the governing Liberal Democratic Party have reportedly decided to hold the party’s presidential election around April 20, although Prime Minister and LDP President Yoshiro Mori claims he has never expressed his intention to resign. Mori and the LDP are totally irresponsible.

If he persists in denying media reports on his intention to resign, Mori should run in the LDP presidential election. If he loses, people will be satisfied. More than 80 percent of respondents in opinion polls do not support Mori.

Intra-LDP factions are jockeying for position in behind-the-scenes bargaining over Mori’s replacement. The key player is the Keiseikai group, which has controlled Japanese rulers since 1987, when Noboru Takeshita took power as prime minister.

Keiseikai — a faction led by former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto — played a vital role in the appointment of Mori as prime minister last April. At that time, five LDP heavyweights, mostly Keiseikai members, agreed in a secret meeting to name Mori as the replacement for ailing Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, also a member of the group.

No politician has declared his or her candidacy for the LDP presidency, although former LDP policy chief Taku Yamasaki says he will run if nobody else does. Former LDP Secretary General Hiromu Nonaka of the Hashimoto faction, widely regarded as an odds-on favorite, has denied any intention to run, although some magazines have reported he will. The magazines were apparently used in a disinformation campaign by anti-Nonaka groups to torpedo his candidacy. I do not think Nonaka will run.

Meanwhile, speculation is growing that Hashimoto might agree to return to his old job. Hashimoto has no qualification problems, unlike Mori, who was chosen as stopgap LDP president. Intelligent and well-versed in policy affairs, Hashimoto is unlikely to make the kind of outrageous gaffes that Mori has committed.

However, Hashimoto as an LDP presidential candidate would have the following problems:

* While serving as prime minister three years ago, he pushed contradictory policies: He implemented generous economic-stimulus packages and pushed fiscal reform to reduce a snowballing budget deficit. These policies contributed to Japan’s current economic crisis.

* He was forced to resign as LDP president and prime minister to take the blame for the party’s disastrous setback in the July 1998 Upper House election. This raises a serious concern, with another Upper House election to be held this July.

Former Health and Welfare Minister Junichiro Koizumi is another strong contender for the LDP presidency. But Koizumi, who advocates the privatization of postal savings, postal insurance and mail services, has stirred resentment among postmasters, who are capable of collecting 1 million votes for the LDP in the Upper House polls. Leaders of the Hashimoto faction are trying to block Koizumi’s candidacy by pressuring Koizumi, chief of the Mori faction, and Mori himself.

Even if Koizumi, known as a reformer, becomes LDP president and prime minister, chances are that voters will still view the LDP negatively due to its old-fashioned factionalism. In that case, Koizumi will end up as a caretaker prime minister. Many pundits say that Koizumi should seek power after a severe setback in the Upper House polls forces the LDP to implement drastic reform.

Other possible contenders for the LDP presidency are Justice Minister Masahiko Komura, former Trade Minister Mitsuo Horiuchi, young, reform-minded Nobuteru Ishihara, and the governing party’s policy chief, Shizuka Kamei. Kamei’s candidacy is backed by conservative groups tainted by recent payoff scandals.

Behind-the-scenes negotiations over the election are likely to continue down to the wire.

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