Tokyo — Can the Liberal Democrats do away with their factions? Zenko Suzuki, newly chosen president of Japan's ruling party and soon-to-be prime minister, says he will try.
But the key to the new leader's success as a mediator and balancer of the conflicting forces will lie in how he allocates Cabinet posts among the party's major factions.
Mr. Suzuki is said to be determined that the most important posts -- foreign affairs, finance, international trade, and defense -- will go to men of talent regardless of their seniority with particular party factions.
[Reuters reports sources as saying that Mr. Suzuki is expected to offer the Foreign Ministry portfolio to acting Prime Minister Masayoshi Ito. Mr. Ito became acting leader after the passing of Masayoshi Ohira June 12. His appointment would ensure continuity of the late Prime Minister's diplomacy.]
[Other top posts, probably in the economic sphere, will go to Yashuhiro Nakasone and Toshio Komoto, two veteran former ministers who dropped out of the race for the prime ministership last week. Another early contender for the top post, former Foreign Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, is favored to be chief Cabinet secretary.]
Mr. Suzuki's July 15 appointment as party chief ended a two-month lapse in leadership that began when the late Prime Minister Ohira was unexpectedly defeated on a vote of confidence in the Diet (parliament) May 16.
After Mr. Ohira's passing, the Liberal Democrats continued leaderless through the rest of the campaign. Some cynics say they fared better than if the opposition parties had had a personal target to attack.
The prevailing issue in the campaign became, not the dissension within the ruling party and the scandals that plagued much of Mr. Ohira's administration, but which group was better fitted to rule Japan -- the Liberal Democrats or the opposition. The voters chose the Liberal Democrats by a landslide, many of them saying openly that with all their faults the Liberal Democrats were a safer choice than a divided leftist opposition.
Now the Liberal Democrats again have a recognized leader, who will be chosen prime minister when the Diet (parliament) convenes July 17. In that sense, they again offer their opponents a target.
Mr. Suzuki said at a recent press conference that he knew the voters had not chosen the Liberal Democrats unconditionally. "We must reflect on the past and show we are a party capable of leading the country into the 1980s. We must purify ourselves and establish political morality."
Factions are formed within the party and morality is called into question to a large extent because of the high cost of elections. Mr. Suzuki said he hoped to bring about an electoral system in which poor, nameless youths with passion could run for office. Most observers wish him well but question whether a system that seems so ingrained within the party can be eliminated merely by a politics of harmony and goodwill.
Mr. Suzuki himself leads the former Ohira faction, the largest faction within the party. Although it has been formally disbanded, inevitably the 56 lower-house and 20 upper-house members of the faction will be known henceforth as the Suzuki faction.
The Tanaka faction comes nexT, with 53 lower-house members. In the upper house it has 32 members, so that in terms of total Diet members, it is the most numerous faction in the party. The faction is led by former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka who has had to leave the party because he is under trial in the Lockheed corruption case.
Then comes the Fukuda faction, led by former Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda (48 lower-house and 28 upper-house members). The Fukuda, Ohira, and Tanaka factions form the core of Mr. Suzuki's support. But at the press conference the new party president carefully pointed out that he was chosen because he had widespread party support, not just because certain numerically strong groups upheld him.
Outside the ex-Ohira, Tanaka, and Fukuda factions there are the two factions headed by Messrs. Nakasone (44 lower-house members, 6 upper-house) and Komoto (heir to the old Miki faction -- 32 lower-house members, 10 upper-house members).
Until now, the practice has been for each faction to nominate certain senior members for Cabinet posts, often with little regard to their competence. With the best will in the world, Mr. Suzuki is not going to change the system overnight.