Toshiki Kaifu, a former education minister and an official of the smallest faction in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, emerged Wednesday as the likely successor to Prime Minister Sosuke Uno.
With assurances of support from most of the party's five factions, Kaifu, 58, announced that he will be a candidate in Tuesday's election for party president. The winner will be elected prime minister by the lower house of Parliament, where the Liberal Democrats have a 39-seat majority.
Kaifu made his announcement after the leader of his faction, Toshio Komoto, a former deputy prime minister who twice before had sought the post of prime minister, withdrew his name.
Komoto, seated beside Kaifu, said the 31 members of his faction have informed him that the party's representatives in Parliament favor a youthful leader to guide the beleaguered party through what promises to be a crucial, uphill battle in a forthcoming election for the lower house. Komoto is 78.
Kaifu also has the support of the 113-member faction controlled by former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita and the 88-member faction of former Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe.
Thus, he was assured, even before announcing his candidacy, of getting more than 50% of the votes to be cast in the party caucus. After Komoto's announcement, Kiichi Miyazawa, leader of the party's third-largest faction, which controls 19% of the caucus votes, added his endorsement.
Political analysts said the overwhelming support for Kaifu gave him "a 99% guarantee" of victory.
Candidates will submit their applications for the party presidency at a meeting Saturday, and the election is scheduled to take place at a party caucus Tuesday. Voting Tuesday will be the 405 Liberal Democratic members of both houses of Parliament and one party representative from each of Japan's 47 prefectures--a total of 452.
First Formal Candidate
The announcement by Kaifu (pronounced Kigh-foo) made him the first formal candidate. Japanese newspapers reported that Shintaro Ishihara, a hawkish novelist-turned-politician, might also be a candidate.
Kaifu was a close associate of the late Prime Minister Takeo Miki, the "Mr. Clean" of Liberal Democratic politics in the years since World War II, and this has given him a corruption-free image.
Yet Kaifu conceded Wednesday that he, like all the party's first-echelon leaders, had received political contributions from Recruit Co., the information and real estate conglomerate at the center of the scandal that brought down Takeshita and put Uno in his place.
But unlike the front-line leaders, all of whom the party disqualified from holding office, Kaifu said he had made no windfall profits from transactions in Recruit stock.
Kaifu said the company gave him 14.4 million yen ($105,726) between 1983 and 1987 in contributions for political activities. He said the contributions were all reported to the authorities, as required by law, and amounted to "only a small portion" of the 200 million to 300 million yen ($1.5 million to $2.2 million) he said he has received in total contributions in recent years.
"At the time I received the (Recruit) contributions, that company was not known as a firm that was creating a social problem," Kaifu said. He said he has received no contributions from Recruit since its influence-buying activities were exposed last year.
Kaifu's emergence as the likely successor to Uno appeared to reflect the desperation of the Liberal Democrats. In May, after Takeshita assumed responsibility for the Recruit scandal and announced his resignation, he said no consideration would be given to any of the party's "youth corps" as prime minister. Instead, he designated as his successor Uno, 66, whose 1985 affair with a geisha was exposed three days after Uno took office June 2.
Voter disenchantment with the Liberal Democrats--rooted in the Recruit scandal as well as a broken promise not to enact a consumption tax--led to a setback in the July 23 election for the upper house of Parliament. The Liberal Democrats fell 17 seats short of a majority, the first time since the party was formed 34 years ago that it had lost control of either house of Parliament.
As the votes were being counted, Uno announced his intention to resign as prime minister.
Fresh Face Needed
A surge of popularity for Takako Doi, chairwoman of the Socialist Party, increased the number of Socialist seats in the upper house by 63% and made it imperative that the Liberal Democrats choose a leader with a fresh appearance.
Kaifu's good looks and his ability as an orator--he won a national debating contest as a student at Waseda University--were cited as reasons for choosing him to deal with the "Doi boom."
Elections for the powerful lower house of Parliament must take place by next July but are expected to be called as early as this fall, and the Liberal Democrats face a make-or-break situation.
The Liberal Democrats' setback in the upper house meant that they can no longer enact legislation unilaterally; a loss in the lower house could deprive them of the power to elect their leader unilaterally as prime minister.
'Crisis for the Party'
In recommending Kaifu, Komoto said the upper house defeat constituted "a crisis for the party and a crisis for Japan."
Kaifu pledged to make political reform his No. 1 priority. He pointed to his faction's record of advocating political ethics and his own work with a ruling party reform committee.
In addition, he said he would be willing to revise the unpopular consumption tax, which analysts cited as the main cause for the Liberal Democrats' setback in the upper house. But he asked for more time "to organize my thinking" on the matter.