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A preliminary election tomorrow for the new president of the Liberal Democratic Party will decide how a total of 141 votes cast by representatives of the party’s local blocs will be shared among the four candidates. Final results will be determined by the election in which 246 LDP Diet members will cast their decisive ballots on Friday.

The four candidates are: Ryutaro Hashimoto, former prime minister and currently minister in charge of administrative reform, Okinawa and affairs related to the Northern Territories; Junichiro Koizumi, former health and welfare minister; Shizuka Kamei, chairman of the party’s policy research council; and Taro Aso, minister for economic and fiscal policy.

At this stage of campaigning for the preliminary election, Koizumi is reported to be leading the other three, but not by a margin wide enough to ensure his final victory. Hashimoto, who enjoys majority support among Diet members, may turn the tables in Friday’s election. Alternatively, the new party president may have to be decided by a runoff election between Koizumi and Hashimoto if none of the candidates wins a majority in the first ballot among the LDP Diet members.

Which scenario prevails will substantially affect the ensuing election of the new prime minister in the Diet, as well as the fate of the new government. And all this will crucially influence the outcome of the Upper House election scheduled for July.

At first, most political analysts predicted that the current struggle for the post of LDP president would end up favoring Hashimoto rather than than Koizumi. This was mainly because Hashimoto heads the largest faction within the LDP and seemed most likely to obtain the support of other factions that were not putting forward their own candidates this time. Furthermore, many analysts predicted that, in a runoff, Hashimoto would be able to win support from those Liberal Democrats who had voted for Kamei or Aso in the first round.

Once the preliminary campaigns started, however, unexpectedly strong criticism of Hashimoto surfaced even among members of the Hashimoto faction. In contrast, Koizumi’s public popularity has risen. It can be said that the adoption of the preliminary election by regional-bloc representatives has gone a long way toward challenging the traditionally closed nature of Liberal Democratic decision-making. This gap between the general party membership and LDP Diet members seems likely to affect the electoral outcome.

The most interesting question is this: Has the balance of support between Koizumi and Hashimoto shifted to the point of necessitating a runoff election between the two? Koizumi’s supporters are said to be reformists and a minority in the party, but if their support turns out to be strong enough to make Koizumi a real contender in a parliamentary race for the prime ministership, then he would become a focus of genuine political excitement.

Recent moves, not only in the LDP but also in the opposition parties, indicate the possibility of the reformists’ influence growing large enough to really jolt the LDP, which has governed this country for the past five decades. Koichi Kato and Taku Yamasaki, who once joined with Koizumi to form a reformist alliance called “YKK,” are now strongly backing Koizumi for LDP president. These two leaders, who each head smaller factions, are said to want to regain the leadership of the party by reviving the tripartite alliance.

Meanwhile, some younger Liberal Democrats are secretly conspiring with their counterparts in the opposition Democratic Party to establish an alliance similar to the “Satsuma-Choshu alliance,” a military alliance formed between Satsuma and Choshu clans to bring about the Meiji Restoration.

It appears that political developments on the horizon — from the debut of the new Cabinet later this month to the July Upper House election and possibly an ensuing general election — may signal a period of political upheaval for this nation.

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