The feuding within Japan's Liberal Democratic Party intensified today as the government party's shrewd political bosses battled to name a successor to Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki, who announced his intention to resign yesterday.
At a press conference today, his first since announcing the abrupt move, Suzuki told reporters he planned to step down to put an end to the factional strife that has torn the Liberal Democratic Party. He turned aside questions on his choice of a successor, saying, "I only hope the man to be picked would gather around him fresh and energetic men to inaugurate an active government."
Suzuki said he would quit as Liberal Democratic Party president, a post which carries with it the premiership, although he will remain in office until a new party head is chosen.
Political analysts surveying the rocky landscape within the Liberal Democratic Party said that Suzuki's apparent unwillingness to designate a successor was almost certain to leave the choice open to the maneuvering of former prime ministers Kakuei Tanaka and Takeo Fukuda, bitter political foes who command large factions within the party.
In the Liberal Democratic Party, factions are organized according to rigidly hierarchical rules under veteran politicians who demand and get almost feudal loyalty from their younger proteges.
Tanaka's faction in the Japanese parliament's key 511-seat lower house is the largest, with 108 members and leads what is termed the party's "mainstream" along with Suzuki's second-ranking group. Pitted against the Tanaka-Suzuki alliance is Fukuda's 77-member bloc, which has led a vigrous campaign in recent months to oust Suzuki.
With the apparent strong backing of the Tanaka-led forces, Yasuhiro Nakasone has emerged as the party "mainstream's" prime candidate.
Currently serving as head of the Administrative Management Agency in the Suzuki Cabinet, Nakasone, 64, has held a number of key party and ministerial posts in a long grooming process for the premiership. His major drawback, however, is a reputation among party members for opportunism; he has acquired the uncomplimentary nickname of "Weather Vane."
Fukuda is believed to oppose Nakasone fiercely because of a series of past political slights and Nakasone's close ties with Tanaka. Fukuda has given his support to Toshio Komoto, 71, another veteran party member, and has broadly hinted that he may force an election runoff for the top party post unless the two sides can agree on a compromise in negotiations.
With the factional battle lines now more clearly drawn, failure to reach a compromise by Saturday would automatically set the party's machinery in motion for elections in November. It could, analysts here say, also force a party primary beforehand in which it is widely believed Komoto would be the odds-on favorite because of his broad support among the Liberal Democratic Party's rank and file.
Anxious to avert that possiblity, the Tanaka and Suzuki factions have argued that a potentially nasty election race would help amplify already heated public criticism of the Liberal Democratic Party's seemingly interminable factional disputes. Suzuki called on the party today to avoid an open and divisive conflict.
Despite Suzuki's public plea for a new era in Liberal Democratic Party politics and his suggestion that party elders appoint a younger, more dynamic leader, political analysts said that the passing of power from the party's ruling gerontocracy is apt to be an excruciatingly slow process regardless of who is eventually tapped for Suzuki's job.
The political picture has been complicated by the emergence, in recent years, of a new generation of Liberal Democratic Party leaders, who embarked on their careers only after the conservative party was offcially formed in 1955. Many of these "younger" politicians, whose average age is about 60, now want a chance to rise more quickly to top party and government posts.
Old political pros like Fukuda and Tanaka, however, are not eager to pass the torch.
Shintaro Abe, 58, who currently serves as minister of international trade and industry, is widely regarded as Fukuda's heir apparent and has been touted as a dark horse candidate to take over from Suzuki. Fukuda, however, has stepped back from openly endorsing him, observers said, because the former prime minister may be eyeing a political comeback himself.
In the Tanaka camp, Noboru Takeshita, 59, has also been mentioned as an outside candidate for party president. Tanaka is currently on trial in the Lockheed bribery scandal. Political analysts say that Tanaka is determined to cling to his Liberal Democratic Party power base to help ride out his legal difficulties and does not intend to promote actively any of his younger lieutenants.
Outspoken party maverick Ichiro Nakagawa, 57, has publicly declared his intention to run in the Liberal Democratic Party presidential race, but the tiny faction he controls in the Diet, or parliament, lacks the muscle to mount a successful challenge to entrenched party bosses.
In speculation among political analysts and journalists here, many junior Liberal Democratic Party members would welcome a battle within the party that might help unseat the old guard and pave the way for their rise to power. While observers are not ruling out a possible party split, they suggest that Tanaka and Fukuda are not likely to let things go that far.
Suzuki came to power in July, 1980, as the result of a temporary truce between the two political antagonists, who virtually installed him in office.
It is now speculated that the two men, with the support of Suzuki, may again maneuver behind the scenes to pick another compromise candidate from Liberal Democratic Party backbenchers to paper over their differences and help ease party strife.