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A maverick to shake up Japan

A reformer emerges as the frontrunner for prime minister in a party election Tuesday.

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As of yesterday, the results of early prefectural primaries - roughly akin to state primaries in the US - showed Koizumi far ahead of former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, who, as the candidate from the LDP faction with the largest number of seats in the Diet, was the frontrunner. Taro Aso, the minister of economic and fiscal affairs, and Shizuka Kamei, a member of the "Gang of Five" who selected Mr. Mori for the country's top slot a year ago, are also on the ballot.

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This year, prefectural representatives of the party have more of a say in the selection of a prime minister than ever before. Each of the 47 prefectures gets three votes, instead of one, for a total of 141 ballots. Though polls show Koizumi sweeping up many of those votes - comprising a chorus of disappointment with the LDP's politics-as-usual even in the face of economic crisis - that only makes up about 30 percent of the total number of eligible votes.

The remainder come from 346 LDP Diet members, many of them veteran politicians who benefited from - and owe their seats to - playing ball within the faction system. To cross it is to risk virtual excommunication from the faction altogether.

"The LDP members live and breathe the faction system. For them to change that is to lose their power," says Minoru Morita, a political analyst with the Morita Research Institute in Tokyo. "You can't say that the current politicians are independent thinkers. They receive money from the faction and got to the position they did because of the faction."

Mr. Morita credits Koizumi as being one of the few LDP politicians who has not been cowered by former LDP Secretary General Hiromu Nonaka, the party's current powerhouse. But Morita also thinks it is unlikely that Koizumi will win the support of the party members who would have to break ranks with their factions to support him.

"Mr. Koizumi's faction did not have enough power, so he decided to leave and try to gain the party members' support. And he has done that, but he does not actually have enough power to win in the election," says Morita. More likely, he believes, Koizumi will be able to garner enough support to start his own party, taking along with him some of the party's dynamic young guard, strengthening the opposition against the LDP.

Uncertainty is better

But other analysts and media reports suggest that the die has not yet been cast. The fact that there is any uncertainty at all is seen by reformists as auspicious, compared with the back-room decisionmaking that produced Mori as a prime ministerial replacement last year. He was chosen in a closed-room vote hours after Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi suffered a stroke.

There may or may not be a run-off race between the top two candidates in tomorrow's race. The LDP's rules stipulate that there should be a tie-breaker election if neither contender wins a majority, but Mr. Hashimoto may withdraw from the race if Koizumi appears to have overwhelming support, reports the Daily Yomiuri newspaper, quoting a source in Hashimoto's faction.

Moreover, it is not clear whether, when a prefecture votes one way - in favor of Koizumi, for example - an LDP Diet member from the same prefecture will be able to reconcile a vote with his faction, against the wishes of his constituents. Crossing the faction may be dangerous, but so may be crossing the voters, who may register any displeasure with representatives at Upper House elections scheduled for July.

That is the kind of dilemma many here say politicians shouldn't have to consider. Says Yoshimi Watanabe, one of the young progressive Diet members from the LDP: "The whole faction system has to be changed to regain the people's trust. The politicians need to be loyal to the people instead of to their faction."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor