Kaifu to Become Next Prime Minister : Japan’s Ruling Party Names a New Leader

Times Staff Writer

In a shift toward youth designed to reverse its dwindling support among voters, Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party today chose Toshiki Kaifu, 58, a former education minister, as the successor to outgoing Prime Minister Sosuke Uno.

In a caucus in which 447 representatives cast effective votes, Kaifu received 279 votes, or 62.4%, on the first ballot against two challengers to become the party’s new president.

By virtue of the Liberal Democrats’ majority in the lower house, Parliament will elect him prime minister on Wednesday after Uno formally resigns, assuming responsibility for an unprecedented upper house election defeat.


Yoshiro Hayashi, 62, a former health and welfare minister who entered politics after a civil service career, finished second with 120 votes, while Shintaro Ishihara, 56, a hawkish novelist-turned-politician, got only 48.

All three candidates agreed that the Liberal Democrats, who have ruled Japan since the party was formed in 1955, had lost the trust of voters and must carry out sweeping reforms. They also agreed that an unpopular 3% consumption tax that the party rammed through Parliament must be revised.

‘Closed’ Decision-Making

Hayashi and Ishihara, however, protested what they called the “closed nature” of party decision-making, including factional bargaining that vaulted Kaifu into sudden prominence.

Although himself tainted by a widespread influence-buying scandal, for which he resigned, former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita single-handedly named his own successor, Uno, and again, this time, put his 105-member faction behind Kaifu. Former Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe, Takeshita’s closest ally, followed suit with his 80-member faction.

Facing the Takeshita-Abe alliance in favor of his junior lieutenant, Toshio Komoto, 78, head of the party’s tiniest faction of 30 members, last Wednesday agreed to step aside in favor of Kaifu.

Some critics were already dubbing Kaifu as head of “the third Takeshita government”--Uno having been the second.

The choice of Uno, 66, free of any taint in the influence-buying scandal, proved a disastrous mistake when an ex-geisha, three days after he took office, accused him of a sex-for-money relationship with her in 1985.

Both of the dark-horse contenders said they entered the race to ensure that an election, rather than just back-room manipulations, would be held to choose a new leader. Hayashi’s candidacy with the backing of the 78-member faction headed by former Finance Minister Kiichi Miyazawa signaled an end to the pan-factional, no-dissent structure of the party that has prevailed since 1986.

Front-Line Leaders Barred

It was the first vote for a party leader since 1982 and the first election in the party’s 34-year history in which no factional leader sought Japan’s highest office. All of the front-line leaders have been barred from holding office until next May or after the next lower house election--whichever comes first--in penitence for accepting windfall profits in unlisted stocks offered them by Recruit Co., an information industry and real estate conglomerate that has been the core of the influence-buying scandal.

Touted as one of the party’s best orators, Kaifu will be the youngest prime minister since 1972, when Kakuei Tanaka assumed office at 54. Only three months ago when he tapped Uno, Takeshita ruled out leaders in Kaifu’s age group as “unprepared.”

In fact, Kaifu has had little experience in either diplomacy or economics. In the sub-Cabinet post of deputy chief Cabinet secretary, Kaifu attended two economic summits with his mentor, the late Prime Minister Takeo Miki, and sat in on top-level U.S.-Japan meetings when Miki was in office between 1974 and 1976.

But only twice has he served in the Cabinet--both times as education minister.

In a campaign speech for the party post Monday, Kaifu said that he would make Japan’s alliance with the United States the “axis” of Tokyo’s diplomacy. Declaring that Japan “must contribute to the stability and prosperity of the world,” he also supported an active role for Japan in foreign aid and in efforts to solve the problem of heavily indebted Third World nations.

In a tripartite news conference with his competitors Saturday, Kaifu displayed no sense of urgency about U.S.-Japan economic frictions. Japan, he said, should better explain to the United States the gradual improvement in the trade imbalance that he said is already occurring.

Kaifu will have to be reaffirmed as party leader when the term Uno inherited from Takeshita ends Oct. 30. Barring revelations of another scandal, however, the reapproval process is expected to be a formality--unless the lower house election is held before then.

That ballot is expected to be the biggest challenge the Liberal Democrats have ever faced.

The upper house election defeat deprived the party of its ability to enact legislation unilaterally, and a loss in the lower house would strip it of the power to unilaterally elect its leader as prime minister.

Kaifu, a former college debate champion, was singled out in the hope that he would be able to cope with Socialist Chairwoman Takako Doi, whose oratorical ability and voter-appeal carried the once moribund and still ideologically bent Socialist Party to its biggest-ever advance in the July 23 upper house election.

The lower house election must be held by next July, but it is expected much earlier.

A defeat in that election could bring down the Kaifu administration--and open the doors again to the mainline leaders of the party.