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Japan's Race for Premier Shifts Quietly into Gear

Japan's campaign for prime minister is different this time because of a decision by its lead political party to hold a formal election to decide its nominee

NO grand announcements, no whistle-stops, no glad-handing, no balloons, no baby-kissing. In fact, the campaigns of candidates who aim to be the next prime minister of Japan have been so discreet that many Japanese do not know a race is on.

Yet the rough equivalent of an American primary season was launched earlier this month to select the next leader of Asia's economic giant.

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The candidates have recently become more visible: traveling abroad, appearing on television, calling on other politicians. Rumor mills are working overtime.

``We have entered the season of politics,'' says Gaishi Hiraiwa, chairman of the Japan Federation of Economic Organizations, a politically powerful business group.

The trigger for the campaign was the May 15 passing of Shintaro Abe, a leading politician. He had been the shoo-in choice of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) for its selection this fall of a new party president. Since the conservative LDP has ruled the Diet, or parliament, since 1956, its choice of leader automatically becomes prime minister.

Abe's passing suddenly opened the field to at least a half-dozen contenders, all within the LDP. Opposition parties are so weak in Japan that the real politics take place in intraparty struggles between five LDP factions, with backroom deals struck between faction barons. Abe was head of the second-largest faction.

What has made this campaign for the premiership different from the past is that the LDP decided May 28 to hold a formal election for party president at its Oct. 27 gathering.

The party has no tradition of making decisions on a majority vote, says Kiichi Miyazawa, one faction chief. As a leading candidate, Mr. Miyazawa is projecting his image as the most international of Japanese candidates by making a trip to Southeast Asia.

One reason the party chose to actually elect a leader is the absence of a strongman. The last such LDP figure was Kakuei Tanaka who fell ill in 1985. Many power politicians were sidelined by the 1988-89 money-for-favors Recruit scandal.

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``There's no core to the LDP anymore,'' says Rei Shiratori, a Tokai University professor.

Toshiki Kaifu, the present prime minister, is also a candidate, but not a favored one. Party elders picked him in 1989 for his ``Mr. Clean'' image after most of them were tainted by the Recruit scandal. Mr. Kaifu is No. 2 in the smallest faction and is often embarrassed when powerful politicians make decisions without him.

With a small power base, Kaifu is trying to be the most public of campaigners, hoping to translate high popularity into party support, though public opinion may have limited influence on the LDP's choice. Kaifu plans to tour Japanese cities in June to ``invite'' public support for him in his drive to reform politics by revamping the legislature.

``If Kaifu does not get political reform by October,'' says Takeshi Kono of Kyorin University, ``then it is doubtful that he can continue to lead.''

Kaifu successfully pushed the LDP to hold a special session of parliament in July to take up political reform. But the party is so divided and opposition so strong that few predict any reform soon.

Yet Kaifu has a chance to be selected again if the LDP becomes deadlocked. Analysts say this could happen if the party remains divided over whether to pick a young person or to pick a Recruit-tainted politician.

In April, the LDP allowed former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone to rejoin the party less than two years after he was forced to quit for being associated with the Recruit scandal.

Former Prime Minster Noboru Takeshita, another tainted leader and head of the largest LDP faction, was promoted as a candidate on May 30 by LDP Secretary-General Keizo Obuchi. Mr. Takeshita was forced to resign as premier in May 1989, but he remains powerful enough that he is often courted by President Bush and other United States officials. Normally reticient in public, Takeshita has appeared more frequently in the news media recently.

``If Takeshita becomes prime minister again,'' says Dr. Shiratori, ``the LDP might not win the 1992 upper house elections.'' Still, he adds, Takeshita is eager to become prime minister in order to finish his agenda of boosting Japan's political role in Asia.

Pressure to pick a young leader has opened a quiet generational dispute inside the LDP. Some analysts say older politicians have decided to help each other in opposing such a move.

Still, two leading youthful candidates are Ichiro Ozawa, former LDP secretary-general, and Finance Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, whose good looks have helped him achieve high popularity ratings, pollsters say.

Meanwhile, the LDP is moving to partly open Japan's closed rice market under US pressure and to brace for an expected rural backlash at the polls.

Just which politician is seen as taking the blame for allowing cheaper foreign rice into Japan may influence how the LDP votes in October. Analysts say the party lost control of the less-powerful upper house in a 1989 election in part because of a decision to allow beef and orange imports.

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