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Saturday, June 3, 2006

Support group launch for Abe signals start of LDP campaign

Staff writer

Some 100 Liberal Democratic Party members formed a group Friday to support Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, 51, who is considered a likely candidate to be the next prime minister.

Friday's launch of the Abe group means he has unofficially started his campaign for the LDP presidency, and hence the country's top post.

Speculation ahead of the formation of the group was that it could have a big impact on the September LDP presidential poll and that such a show of support may eventually split the LDP.

Campaigning has not started officially because the Diet is still in session. But relatively young politicians from various factions are launching support groups for other reasons, ostensibly to address pressing policy issues.

Abe's group, for example, aims to support the government's policy of reducing the widening gap between the wealthy and others, and not to back up Abe himself.

"We have to create a society where people have second chances in their life," Abe told the meeting. "I want the group to discuss the issue actively and show direction in this issue."

The policy is to ease growing concerns among the public that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's drive for structural reforms and efficiency may have widened the gap. Abe took the initiative in a government panel to discuss the policy. The panel released an interim report earlier this week.

"Based on the panel's interim report, we plan to hammer out a report by August," said Isshu Sugawara, a key member of the new group.

The group plans to hold two meetings a month to hear from corporate managers, bank executives and unions, and to weigh specific government measures to help people experiencing career shortcomings.

But critics call the group a wolf in sheep's clothing.

"It is obvious the group's purpose is to show their support for Abe ahead of the official campaign," said Fukashi Horie, a former political science professor at Keio University and president of Shobi University.

Horie said young politicians are worried they may not be re-elected in the next election without Koizumi leading them. The September election victory was due in large part to Koizumi's successful media image.

"Now that factions are losing their power, young politicians can no longer rely on a faction leader to help them get re-elected," Horie said.

An LDP victory in next year's Upper House election would likely be soon followed by a Lower House dissolution.

Abe hinted last week he would seek the LDP helm in September. Polls have constantly showed him as the most likely to win the post.

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The Japan Times

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