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Cover Story/ Rookie power: The latest group of first-time lawmakers could determine the next LDP president.
(IHT/Asahi: December 24,2005)
By TORU HIGASHIOKA
The Asahi Shimbun
A letter was sent Dec. 8 to each of the 83 new Lower House members elected on the coattails of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's popularity in September.
Written by LDP Secretary-General Tsutomu Takebe, the letter said, "Prime Minister Koizumi has instructed us to hold a meeting with him for all rookie Lower House members who do not belong to a faction."
In veiled terms, the words made clear that anyone who joined a faction would not be invited to Koizumi's year-end party Dec. 20.
About a third of the newcomers were erased from the guest list.
The prime minister's year-end party was part of a developing battle in the LDP to win over the formidable bloc of rookie lawmakers known as "Koizumi children."
First-time Diet members of the LDP have rarely received so much attention from their more experienced colleagues. But given the numbers involved, party heavyweights know the rookies could wield considerable influence in the vote next September to choose Koizumi's successor as LDP leader.
"It's no exaggeration to say that those 83 individuals will create the momentum for next year's party presidential election," Takebe said at a Dec. 14 party in Tokyo.
Even the Mori faction, the largest in the party and which has two possible candidates to succeed Koizumi--Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe and former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda--has taken note.
"Left on their own, the first-termers could be a destabilizing element in the party presidential election," said one faction executive.
Koizumi, who has pushed for an LDP system that is not heavily influenced by party factions, has encouraged the rookies to remain "independent."
On Dec. 2, Koizumi held a meeting with the first-termers at his official residence to assure them of his support.
"The secretary-general and I will definitely create a structure for campaigning that will not require joining a faction," he told the group.
The party has hosted training sessions for the new lawmakers on policy and Diet affairs, and arranged meetings with business leaders. Koizumi even agreed to pose for campaign photos with each first-termer.
Still, about 30 of the new Lower House members have joined factions in the three months since the Sept. 11 Lower House election.
Their reasons vary. Some say the party training sessions were not enough to teach them how to handle requests from constituents or how to create personal political networks. Others said that not joining a faction would leave them out of the loop politically.
Some first-termers are trying to set up horizontal ties with their cohorts rather than rely on the vertical ties typical of a faction in the party.
Seiji Hagiwara, who quit as mayor of Okayama to run for the Lower House, joined nine other newcomers to set up a study group.
On Dec. 14, the group presented a proposal to revise the basic plan for equal gender opportunity to Kuniko Inoguchi, state minister in charge of gender equality and measures to deal with the declining birthrate.
In the past, it was unheard of for rookies to present policy proposals. Inoguchi, herself a first-term Lower House member, praised the group's move as capturing the essence of what politicians must do.
Another rookie group plans to submit a bill to the next Diet session to promote eco-tourism.
There is even a group of first-term female Lower House members debating new measures for agriculture.
Still, these rookies are finding it hard to ignore some political concerns.
For one thing, 14 of the 83 first-termers gained their seats exclusively through the proportional representation constituency.
The 14 fear that their ranking on the party roster in the next election could be left up to Koizumi's successor, whoever that may be.
Some rookies have not yet set up personal support groups, held fund-raisers or begun to seek corporate political donations--all vital steps to getting re-elected.
"Most of us, just under the surface, are thinking only about the next election," said a first-termer who gained a seat through the Tokai bloc of the proportional representation constituency after losing in the single-seat district.
But before that happens, the biggest political event is September's vote for Koizumi's successor.
During his Dec. 2 meeting, the prime minister told the newcomers: "The functions of factions will decline. I think it would be better if you just observed what they did for a year or so."
When asked Dec. 12 what he would do in the run-up to that election, Koizumi said, "I will support someone. I will have to use my single vote."
Some in the LDP fear that Koizumi's influence over his "children" could lead to the eventual formation of a new "Koizumi faction" comprising those members.
The first-termers have already formed what they call the "83 group," led by Masatada Tsuchiya.
"We will not unite in support for a specific candidate (in the presidential race)," Tsuchiya said.
But one rookie Lower House member said: "I plan to keep a close eye on what Koizumi does. It will be much easier to just follow what he does. And it will be easier to explain to voters."