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Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Abe plays down big lead in LDP presidential race

Front-runner expects more foes to throw their hats in the ring, making for livelier debate


Staff writer

Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, the front-runner in the race to become the next prime minister, said Monday his large lead in opinion polls may change if other politicians decide to run.

The comments followed Friday's news that Yasuo Fukuda, former chief Cabinet secretary and No. 2 in the polls to succeed Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, will not run in the Sept. 20 election for the Liberal Democratic Party presidency, and hence the prime minister's seat.

"It is very possible that official declarations by other influential politicians to become candidates would change the situation," Abe told a regularly scheduled news conference. He added that such participation would encourage debate over specific policies.

Abe noted that he himself has not officially declared his candidacy.

Fukuda's decision raised speculation that Abe would win a landslide victory in the party election to pick the next LDP president. The winner will become the next prime minister, given the LDP's overwhelming presence in the House of Representatives.

Speculation is rising that the decision by Fukuda, who has a friendly posture toward East Asia, compared with Abe's hardline stance at a time of souring regional relations, may prompt other veteran politicians to compete against Abe.

Names that have so far surfaced include Defense Agency Director General Fukushiro Nukaga, Economic and Fiscal Policy Minister Kaoru Yosano and former LDP Secretary General Taku Yamasaki.

Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki has said he will declare his candidacy Thursday. Foreign Minister Taro Aso has also expressed a desire to run.

Later in the day, Abe said it is important to have a strong sense of mission to be the leader of the country.

The comments mirrored remarks by Koizumi that hardships must be expected as prime minister.

At a town meeting in Tokyo's Akihabara district Monday, Koizumi said, "It is not always good to become the prime minister. The person should often feel he wants to resign."

When Abe, who sat next to Koizumi at the meeting, was asked later to comment on the remarks, he said: "Prime Minister Koizumi must have had a hard time for the past five years.

"And I felt it is important to have a sense of duty, which should be stronger than feelings of wanting to step down."

During the town meeting, Abe said "one option" would be to exempt daily necessities such as food and medicine from consumption tax hikes when the 5 percent tax is raised in the future.

In the past, Abe has stressed the importance of reducing government red ink first, in contrast with Tanigaki, who advocates hiking the consumption tax simultaneously.

"It will be quite natural to see (future) discussions that the country has to have a higher consumption tax except for food and medicine," Abe told the audience.

The comments followed Koizumi's remarks that if the consumption tax is raised to as high as 20 percent like in Europe, people may start to call for lower taxes on daily goods.



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