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A fisherman's son may lead Japan

By Takashi Oka / July 8, 1980



Tokyo

Zenko Suzuki, a fisherman's son from the deprived northern province of Iwate, appears to be all but assured of the prime ministership of Japan. Mr. Suzuki's nomination (as yet unavowed) cleared its most important hurdle July 7 when a meeting of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's four supreme advisers raised no particular objection. In typical Japanese fashion, it appears Mr. Suzuki's name was not even mentioned at the meeting.

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Thus the two avowed candidates, Yasuhiro Nakasone and Toshio Komoto, have been elbowed aside by a politician whose chief virtue seems to be that in a party temporarily tired of fierce internal squabbles, he has few enemies and many friends.

Mr. Suzuki belongs to the right faction -- the one owing allegiance to the late Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira. He is also close to former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, who leads the largest faction within the Liberal Democratic Party.

His nomination was clinched when still another faction leader, former Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda, indicated that he was favorably disposed.

Meanwhile Mr. Suzuki himself has steadfastly refused to put forward his own candidacy, first saying that he was more fitted to play a mediating role within the party itself, and then that he could say nothing until after Mr. Ohira's memorial service (to be attended by President Carter, Prime Minister Hua Guofeng of China, and many other notables) July 9.

Mr. Suzuki, a man of modesty and good humor, reputedly possesses formidable skills as a back-room maneuverer. From time to time he has come into the limelight, as when he undertook the knotty assignment of finding a home port for the nuclear freighter Mutsu some years ago.

A veteran parliamentarian first elected to the Diet (parliament) in 1947, Mr. Suzuki currently occupies one of the party's top executive posts -- the chairmanship of the executive council.

It now appears that Mr. Suzuki will be chosen party president and the party's candidate for prime minister by acclamation at a meeting of Liberal Democrat legislators July 15.

No one knows for certain what Mr. Suzuki's stand is on major domestic and international issues. But for party politicians this is almost immaterial because the Liberal Democrats, having won a smashing victory at the polls June 22, have little need to try to conciliate opposition parties. What is far more important from the party's viewpoint is to have a leader who can reconcile warring factions and create conditions under which the baton can pass in orderly fashion to the next generation. Is this good enough for the public?

"I don't think its right for a few party politicians to choose the next prime minister in a closed room," said the owner of a small metalworking factory here. "I voted for the Liberal Democrats because I am for free enterprise and don't want a socialist or communist government here in Japan.

"But there should be a choice of candidates for the prime minister. Let five or ten people run, if they think they would make good prime ministers, and let us have a runoff vote between the top two contenders. That would be the democratic way, and it should leave no hard feelings behind."

Newspapers, reflecting this kind of public sentiment, have also been critical of the way in which the Liberal Democrats have gone about choosing their leader.

"Things have gone so smoothly, I almost feel we may suffer some kind of heavenly punishment," one member of Mr. Suzuki's faction is reported to have remarked. "By heavenly punishment, I mean the criticism of the people."

The powerful Federation of Economic Organizations, the leading organization of industrialists in Japan, has cautiously approved Mr. Suzuki's selection as representing a "natural trend." Within the party, the disappointed factions of Messrs. Nakasone and Komoto are said to be negotiating over the allocation of Cabinet and party posts.