Political turmoil is brewing as the governing Liberal Democratic Party gears up to elect its next president April 24. Whoever is elected will replace the unpopular Yoshiro Mori as prime minister.

Since last year, I have been predicting that former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto would be the most powerful contender for the LDP presidency. Things might not work out that way, however.

Hashimoto heads his own faction, by far the largest in the LDP. Thanks to its sheer numerical strength, only those candidates who represented — or were backed by — this group or its predecessors have won past presidential elections. The late Prime Ministers Kakuei Tanaka and Noboru Takeshita once headed the group’s predecessors.

Mori replaced Keizo Obuchi as LDP president and prime minister a year ago as the result of a backroom deal among four LDP heavyweights, mostly members of the Obuchi faction, which was later taken over by the Hashimoto faction.

Since then, the conservative Mori’s gaffes and outrageous conduct have plunged public-approval ratings of his Cabinet to less than 10 percent. The government has been trying in vain to put the sputtering economy back on a recovery track. The massive economic-stimulus packages based on deficit spending have had little effect. The Japanese people are annoyed.

There is a widespread perception that the LDP’s traditional politics must be reformed to deal with Japan’s political, economic and social crises. This is reflected in plunging support for the LDP, as reflected in various opinion polls.

Running in the LDP presidential election are Hashimoto; former Health and Welfare Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who has no factional affiliations; party policy chief Shizuka Kamei of the Eto-Kamei faction; and Economics Minister Taro Aso of the Kono group.

All four candidates place emphasis on economic policies. Hashimoto, who has apologized for pursuing the incompatible goals of economic recovery and fiscal reform as prime minister, is now determined to boost the economy on a priority basis. Kamei, known as the leader of pork-barrel politics, advocates the front-loading of public-works projects as well as major tax cuts. He is unconcerned about a huge amount of accumulated deficit-bond issues, apparently confident that the problem can be solved when the economy recovers. Koizumi advocates privatization of the nation’s postal savings, postal insurance and mail services and insists that economic recovery will be impossible without structural reform. Furthermore, he is calling for the dissolution of all LDP factions.

For all the frenzy, LDP politicians are pursuing only partisan interests and remain oblivious to public ones. The election will be held amid the perception that old-style LDP politics — which have produced an incompetent prime minister — must be reformed. The reason given for moving the election forward was that otherwise the LDP, under Mori’s leadership, could have suffered a humiliating setback in the Upper House election in July.

Many LDP supporters must be hoping that Japanese will forget the party’s dark days under Mori’s leadership. Most presidential candidates, however, are not talking about ending old-style LDP politics or reforming the party. Instead, they seem intent on seducing the public with short-term economic-stimulus programs. No candidate has expressed regrets over the secret deal a year ago that resulted in the nomination of Mori as LDP president and prime minister.

Only Koizumi is calling for the reform of LDP politics; however, public-opinion polls and surveys of LDP members show that demand is growing for an end to old-style politics.

Earlier, I expected that Hashimoto would collect the largest vote in the first ballot of the election, followed by Koizumi, and that Hashimoto would win the runoff. Now I believe there is a possibility that Koizumi will garner the most votes in the first ballot and win the runoff. We will probably be able to predict the outcome with more certainty on the basis of the results of the presidential primary, in which members of the LDP’s local chapters will vote.

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