In his year as prime minister, Yoshiro Mori caused public disillusionment with the Liberal Democratic Party through his gaffes and incompetence. The LDP’s presidential election Tuesday, in which former Health and Welfare Minister Junichiro Koizumi beat former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto by a wide margin, was an opportunity for the LDP to publicize its renewal by replacing Mori as its president and the nation’s prime minister. The election was moved forward to prevent the disastrous setback it was widely predicted the LDP would suffer in the July Upper House election.

Mori replaced Keizo Obuchi as LDP president and prime minister as the result of a secret deal worked out by four LDP heavyweights who are members of Keiseikai, the largest LDP faction. Obuchi also belonged to that group, now known as the Hashimoto faction.

As prime minister, Mori lacked sound judgment and decision-making power. Public-approval ratings of his Cabinet, which initially were around 70 percent, plunged below 10 percent in the final days of his administration.

The public’s distrust of the LDP stemmed largely from its disapproval of Keiseikai, which has dominated Japanese politics since the late Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita held office. The Hashimoto faction experienced difficulty in choosing a candidate for the presidential election before finally agreeing to back its own chief.

A few years ago, Hashimoto would have coasted to an easy victory in the election as the boss of the largest LDP faction. He lost after trailing far behind Koizumi in the LDP’s presidential primaries, in which the party’s local-chapter members voted. The turnaround was caused by strong public resentment of Mori’s incompetence.

As prime minister, Hashimoto pursued the incompatible goals of economic recovery and a reduction in deficit-covering bond issues, contributing to a prolonged economic slowdown. As an LDP presidential candidate, Hashimoto apologized for his policy missteps.

Today’s recession, however, stems largely from the collapse of the economic bubble. The bubble was created by the 1985 Plaza accord, which required major industrial nations to help the United States solve its balance-of-payments problems by reducing the dollar’s exchange value. Yasuhiro Nakasone was prime minister and Takeshita was finance minister when real-estate prices skyrocketed. It is wrong to blame Hashimoto for the long slowdown stemming from the bubble economy.

As an LDP presidential candidate, Koizumi said economic recovery would be impossible without structural reform. The three other candidates — Hashimoto, Shizuka Kamei and Taro Aso — called for economic-stimulation measures on a priority basis. No candidates proposed specific policy initiatives. Strong support for Koizumi among the LDP’s local-chapter members was both welcome and surprising, considering the LDP’s tradition of faction-based politics.

Koizumi should stay the course in pursuing his policy goals of reforming the LDP and national politics. For the first time in decades, we are observing an agreement of opinion on reform among rank-and-file LDP members, voters and the media.

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