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Wednesday, Sept. 8, 1999

LDP race not just about winning

Staff writer

The campaign period for the Liberal Democratic Party's presidential election begins today, with Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi all but guaranteed victory.

But Obuchi, who has been fighting as if it were a close contest, has set himself a higher goal -- overwhelming victory.

"Mr. Obuchi has been putting a great deal of effort into the race," a secretary to a veteran LDP lawmaker said. "He is apparently aiming at a landslide."

And the simple fact that an election is being held at all has been cheered by political observers as a positive sign of change within the LDP, which has not seen a challenge to an incumbent party leader in 21 years.

Both of Obuchi's opponents, former LDP Secretary General Koichi Kato and former policy affairs chief Taku Yamasaki, have admitted they face an uphill battle. But they threw their hats into the race to air their policy visions to the public, as well as to LDP members, and to stake a claim to party leadership in the future. Both lead their own factions within the LDP.

For Obuchi, the number of votes he can collect will affect not only his own political fate but also the future course of the envisioned tripartite coalition government of the LDP, Liberal Party and New Komeito, to which Kato and Yamasaki are critical.

Obuchi, who heads the LDP's largest faction of 95 lawmakers, has secured support from five out of seven LDP factions, making it all but certain that he will get about 250 votes from a total of 371 LDP members in both chambers of the Diet.

An overwhelming triumph, however, hinges on the 2.9 million rank-and-file LDP members throughout the country, who start casting their ballots today by mail.

Since about 70 percent of LDP members belong to interest groups, including associations of doctors, nurses and postal employees, the LDP factions backing Obuchi have been wooing support from these organizations.

In Obuchi's favor, his faction has more Upper House members elected through proportional representation, with the backing of interest groups, than the factions led by Kato and Yamasaki.

Obuchi reportedly hopes to get nearly 70 percent of the rank-and-file vote.

According to LDP presidential election rules, 10,000 votes from ordinary party members are counted as equivalent to one vote of a Diet member.

Diet lawmakers will cast their ballots Sept. 21.

Lower House LDP member Kazuo Tanikawa, head of the election committee, said he expects voter turnout to be between 50 percent and 80 percent. "I hope more than 60 percent of LDP members will vote," he said.

This year's election marks the first time other candidates have stepped up to challenge an incumbent LDP president since 1978, when Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda was beaten by LDP Secretary General Masayoshi Ohira.

In the last 21 years, when an incumbent LDP president sought re-election, senior leaders of LDP factions huddled to single out their head without holding elections.

Elections are held only when a president decides not to seek another term, and not many LDP heads have sought a second term in recent memory.

The fact that Kato, who heads the LDP's second-largest faction with 70 lawmakers, and Yamasaki, who leads a 31-member faction, even entered the race shows the changing character of the conservative party, observers have said.

"In the past, except for cases such as the big battle between Fukuda and Ohira, hopeful senior LDP members tended to wait for their turn while supporting elders," said Takeshi Sasaki, a professor of political science at the University of Tokyo. "The LDP seems to be changing to allow an open contest in the form of an election."

Sasaki, however, said that some members of the party still prefer the old style of selecting leaders in mostly behind-the-scenes talks.

Obuchi supporters maintain that there is no good reason to replace him because he has been performing well and enjoys a high public approval rating.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiromu Nonaka, addressing a meeting of Obuchi supporters in Tokyo last week, expressed frustration at having to go through the motions of an election.

"I'm angry that we have to hold this election for no legitimate reason," he told the meeting.

It is widely believed that both Kato and Yamasaki have joined the race primarily to establish their names as future presidential candidates. If they do better than expected, they will have achieved their goal, observers have said.

Of the 660 votes to be had, Kato hopes to collect some 100 while Yamasaki has set a target of about 50.

Also, their criticism of the tripartite alliance is expected to work for them in the long run should the party fail in future Lower House elections, which must be held no later than October 2000, and Obuchi is held responsible.

While Obuchi hopes a three-party coalition will ensure political stability by securing a comfortable majority in both houses of the Diet, Kato and Yamasaki have insisted that New Komeito should stay out of the Cabinet, maintaining that the alliance has yet to be accepted fully.

Policy debates during the election campaign between the candidates could cause friction within the party and lead to the formation of dissident forces, Sasaki said.

"This is one of the interesting points of this election we should pay attention to," he said. "We should closely watch how Obuchi reshuffles his Cabinet lineup (considering factions) after the election."

Some expect, however, that when the election ends, the policy debate will disappear, letting the party return to its old ways.

"The LDP experienced being relegated to an opposition party several years ago and they are so afraid of losing power again that they cannot afford to have a full-scale dispute that could lead to disunity within the party," said a lawmaker who once belonged to the LDP. "Despite tit for tat during the campaign period, the LDP will embrace the two factions led by Kato and Yamasaki again when the race ends," he said.

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The Japan Times

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