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Friday, Aug. 18, 2000

NEW BREED BATTLING HIERARCHY

Lawmakers try to rid LDP of stodgy ways


By TOSHI MAEDA and YOKO HANI
Staff writers

A new breed of Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker openly says that the party is an anachronism.

These lawmakers hate the factionalism and seniority rule that have long been the LDP's yardsticks for selecting Cabinet members and party executives, and they are disgusted with its shadowy decision-making process controlled by a handful of party bigwigs.

They are challenging the party to shed these unpopular characteristics and swim with the tide.

Since it was created in early July, the Group to Create the LDP's Tomorrow has attracted media and public attention partly because many of its key members are offspring of formerly powerful LDP figures.

The group, which now comprises more than 40 junior LDP lawmakers from the party's various factions, is headed by Lower House member Nobuteru Ishihara, 43, the eldest son of Shintaro Ishihara, the charismatic Tokyo governor.

Other key figures include: outspoken lawmaker Makiko Tanaka, 56, daughter of the late Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka; Taro Kono, 38, son of Foreign Minister Yohei Kono; Yoshimi Watanabe, 48, son of late LDP doyen Michio Watanabe; and Yasuhisa Shiozaki, 49, son of former Economic Planning Agency chief Jun Shiozaki.

"We shared a sense of crisis after the LDP lost 38 seats in the last general election (of the Lower House in June). But the party executives didn't seem to have the same feeling," Kono said, explaining how they ended up forming the group. "So we thought we must speak up and say: 'Don't you realize that we are in a critical situation?' "

In the June 25 election, the LDP suffered severe losses, especially in urban constituencies as city voters apparently rejected the LDP's trademark pork-barrel politics.

Nevertheless, top party leaders, including Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and Secretary General Hiromu Nonaka, remained unscathed as the party concluded that they won the public's vote of confidence when the LDP and its coalition partners -- New Komeito and the New Conservative Party -- won a comfortable majority in the 480-seat Lower House.

In fact, some of the group's members planned to cast blank ballots in the Diet vote on July 4 that re-elected Mori as prime minister, according to Kono. They gave up the plan after failing to gather a sufficient number of like-minded LDP members to join them, he added.

The group held its first meeting the following day.

"The LDP will not be able to survive the years to come, including the Upper House election next summer, unless it undergoes drastic reforms," Kono said, adding that he believes the party needs a new leader to wipe away its "unpopular character," which stems from its seniority doctrine and the way it distributes Cabinet posts according to factions.

However, the group's members remain shackled by the very factionalism that they are hoping to change.

Watanabe, who has openly called for quickly replacing the unpopular, gaffe-prone Mori, admits that such a demand will not find a consensus within the group because some of its members belong to the faction that Mori leads.

Consensus is also elusive on whether the group should field its own candidate in the next LDP presidential race, which would be held in September 2001 if Mori completes his current term.

Group member Katsuei Hirasawa -- who quit the faction now headed by former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto in late June -- is frustrated. Members of the group belonging to the faction headed by former Secretary General Koichi Kato, who is considered the best hope to succeed Mori, would rather support Kato than field the group's own candidate if he should run in the party election, Hirasawa said.

Hirasawa wants the group to eliminate members who cannot "keep up" with reform ideas so it can become a small but solid group that can apply strong pressure on party elders.

But such a "purification" approach may not be on the cards, according to Ishihara. "We have just discussed that matter and agreed to remain free and open," Ishihara said. "There are new people coming in, while there are some leaving because of various pressures."

In late July, the group handed Secretary General Nonaka a list of proposals for party reform, which included the introduction of a primary system to select the party's official candidates from each constituency in elections. However, there has been no response to the proposals.

"The party's big names just ignore us," Ishihara said. "They are conscious of our presence, but they consciously ignore us."

Despite favorable responses from the public, the group's members say that their colleagues in the LDP consider them heretics.

Takeshi Sasaki, a professor of political science at the University of Tokyo, said it is too early to discuss whether the junior LDP lawmakers will have any significant impact either on the Mori administration or the future of Japanese politics.

"At this moment, their action seems to be nothing more than drawing voters' attention to the existence of young and fresh LDP lawmakers," Sasaki said. "And it is still unclear what specific issues these LDP lawmakers are trying to tackle."

Although the party suffered a setback in the Lower House election and public support for Mori's Cabinet remains low, there is surprisingly little vocal criticism within the LDP toward Mori and his backers, thus making Ishihara's group stand out.

Even Kato, who had earlier criticized Mori's predecessor Keizo Obuchi and his decision last year to ally with New Komeito, has largely been quiet since the election. There is speculation that Kato, assuming the unpopular Mori administration will not last long anyway, is counting on succeeding Mori with the party's mainstream support.

Still, the emergence of a group of dissident lawmakers may indicate that the power of the LDP's leadership is shaky.

Some say Nonaka's clout within the LDP is on the decline after he took the brunt of criticism following the election setback of both the LDP and its coalition partner New Komeito.

With the Upper House election coming up in a year, New Komeito, backed by Soka Gakkai, the nation's largest lay Buddhist organization, is apparently starting to distance itself from the LDP -- another blow to Nonaka, who played a key role in putting the coalition together.

But Hirasawa says that Nonaka's power is still absolute. "The reason why we formed this group is that Nonaka's authority is so powerful that we could not say anything despite the crushing defeat we suffered in the election."



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