The elders of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, having failed in 11th hour talks to choose a successor to Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki, set the wheels in motion early today for party primaries in November.
Veteran politicians Yasuhiro Nakasone, 64, and Toshio Komoto, 71, and two younger party members formally announced their entry into the race for party president, a post that carries with it the premiership.
In a bid to buy more time for the selection of a compromise choice for party leader, however, top leaders agreed late Friday night to order a one-week halt to electioneering and the mailing of ballots to a million party members.
The maneuver is important because it leaves open the door to further talks to ease the intense factional feuding on the issue and to avoid mud-slinging that might renew public criticism of the party's apparent years-long inability to put its house in order.
It was far from clear, however, whether a compromise could be reached within the grace period.
Suzuki abruptly announced Tuesday that he would soon step aside as the president of the government party, a move that also would remove him from the premiership. Suzuki is locked in talks with former prime minister Takeo Fukuda and party Secretary General Susumu Nikaido to choose his successor.
The three, appointed by the party's aging rulers to solve the dispute, failed to reach accord after nearly five hours of bitter debate. The pro-Suzuki forces led by former prime minister Kakuei Tanaka have thrown their support to Nakasone, a veteran politician. But Fukuda, who leads the influential minority camp, has strongly opposed the nomination.
Under the terms of the freeze, qualified candidates will be allowed to file for the race today but mailing of ballots will be suspended for a week while Suzuki, Fukuda and Nikaido continue to seek a compromise.
The candidates will be required to pledge to withdraw if the party elders reach an agreement.
The four formally announced candidates were:
* Nakasone, who heads the administrative management agency under the Suzuki Cabinet. A leader of his own Diet (parliament) faction with close ties to Tanaka, he has served as minister of international trade and industry and director general of Japan's Defense Agency as well as the Liberal Democratic Party secretary general.
* Komoto, a key member of the anti-Suzuki camp and another former trade minister, who is favored by the big-business establishment because of his 36-year career as a corporate president and his long-time advocacy of expansionary policies for industry. He is currently head of the Cabinet-level economic planning agency.
* Shintaro Abe, 58, a former newspaper reporter and son-in-law of former prime minister Nobusuke Kishi, who, at 86, is still considered a kingmaker. Abe currently serves as trade minister and is a member of the Fukuda faction.
* Ichiro Nakagawa, 57, known for his hawkish views on defense. A former minister of agriculture, he heads the science and technology agency and controls a tiny party faction with loose links to Fukuda.
In an apparent attempt to throw their full support to Nakasone, Tanaka and Suzuki announced this morning that they would cancel plans to put senior members of their own factions in the primary race.