Japans Economic Woes Spawn Duel For New Prime Minister

By Tanya Clark

TOKYO: The political scramble to find a successor to resigned Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto has dimmed the dominance of a leading candidate and produced a second contender.

Political leaders increasingly see Keizo Obuchi, leading candidate for prime minister and current Japanese foreign minister, as too weak to handle Japan's economic crisis. At issue is whether the next prime minister will be able to institute vital economic reform, including permanent tax cuts.

Obuchi's poor economic skills and low charisma have sparked intense criticism from younger members of the ruling, and conservative, Liberal Democratic Party. Right-wingers in the party are expressing the same concerns, while moving to secure their power base and support one of their own, Seiroku Kajiyama.

The next few days could see the battle intensify, and though still a remote possibility, a split in the ranks of the LDP is possible. Indeed, the first indication of that was Thursdays postponement of the date for the LDPs selection of a new leader (and likely next prime minister) to Friday, July 24 from Tuesday, July 21. Both Obuchi and Kajiyama have confirmed their candidacies for the post. The Japanese parliaments vote on a new prime minister is slated for Friday, July 30.

Overlying the political maneuverings in Japan is the dismal state of the countrys economy. Its doubtful that pump-priming tax cuts would increase consumer spending and launch a recovery from recession. The economic troubles are deeper -- as reflected in relatively high numbers of bank failures and severe unemployment (the nominal 4.1% jobless rate in Japan, if calculated on the same basis as the U.S. rate, would be about 8.2%).

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