TOKYO — The parliamentary faction of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party that has dominated politics since 1972 picked a new leader Thursday in a coup-like fashion that could split the powerful group.
Five of the eight members of the faction's steering committee met shortly before midnight to approve Keizo Obuchi, 55, a protege of former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita, as chairman of the faction that still bears Takeshita's name.
But followers of Ichiro Ozawa, 50, who was the faction's deputy chairman under kingpin Shin Kanemaru, 78, said they will not accept the decision, signaling a likely schism. Ozawa and two of his followers boycotted the steering committee meeting.
The committee met after eight days of futile attempts to get a consensus on a successor to Kanemaru, who quit Parliament on Oct. 14 in the wake of a scandal. Ozawa had earlier dropped out of the succession contest, bowing to criticism that he employed highhanded tactics in managing the faction. Instead, he backed Finance Minister Tsutomu Hata, 57, for faction chief.
The mild-mannered Obuchi's appointment could resuscitate the backstage political power of Takeshita, who lost the faction's leadership to Kanemaru after resigning as prime minister in a notorious stocks-for-favors scandal in 1989.
But the mushrooming internal feud appeared to spell an end to the faction's ability to single-handedly pick prime ministers and decide major policies. The group was instrumental in putting in office eight of Japan's last 10 prime ministers, including incumbent Kiichi Miyazawa, 73, and was responsible for ousting the other two.
The dominance of its numbers--nearly 30% of the Liberal Democrats' members of Parliament--had all but silenced inner-party criticism of its actions.
Earlier Thursday, Miyazawa and Foreign Minister Michio Watanabe, 68, met alone for 2 1/2 hours and pledged to unite the factions they head as "a single body with a common fate." Until Kanemaru's retirement from politics, Miyazawa had relied entirely on Takeshita-faction leaders to manage party and parliamentary affairs.
Miyazawa also appeared to intervene in the Takeshita faction's move against Ozawa and his candidate. The prime minister and his top aide, Chief Cabinet Secretary Koichi Kato, criticized Hata for seeking the faction's leadership while serving as finance minister.
"Cabinet ministers should devote themselves to state affairs," Kato said.
After the steering committee acted, Obuchi, a former secretary general of the ruling party, pledged to end a tradition that "if the (faction) leader says left, you go left; if he says right, you go right"--exact words Kanemaru once used to describe his leadership of the faction.
Obuchi held out a face-saver to Ozawa, rated as Japan's most forceful younger-generation leader.
"I will not hesitate to work with those who failed to attend the steering committee meeting. I would be grateful for their cooperation," he said.
But Ozawa's followers threatened to boycott--or demand a vote--at a general meeting of the faction that will eventually be called to sanction the steering committee's decision. Japanese politicians traditionally go to extremes to avoid such votes, which, in consensus-style politics, inevitably leave embittered emotions.
After a Cabinet meeting this morning, Hata condemned the steering committee for making its decision in the absence of his and Ozawa's supporters. He said talks between the feuding camps will continue, but added: "There is no way I will abandon the race for chairman now."
Japanese media reported that Ozawa, in the face of defeat, was planning to set up his own "study group" with as many as 50 of the faction's 109 members, a move they said would amount to a \o7 de facto \f7 split of the faction.