Koizumi sparks public feud by ousting old guard

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An attempt by Junichiro Koizumi, the Japanese Prime Minister, to push two of his predecessors into retirement turned into an ugly public feud yesterday, with Yasuhiro Nakasone steadfastly refusing to go and angrily accusing Mr Koizumi of age discrimination.

Though in keeping with party policy of mandatory retirement, asking Mr Nakasone and his fellow former prime minister Kiichi Miyazawa to leave politics was a big risk for Mr Koizumi and could anger older voters, crucial to his party's chances at nationwide parliamentary elections next month. As expected, Mr Miyazawa, 84, gracefully acquiesced, saying he would bow out to save Mr Koizumi "embarrassment." But 85-year-old Mr Nakasone, Prime Minister from 1982 to 1987, was livid. "I absolutely will not agree," Mr Nakasone said at a televised news conference, accusing Mr Koizumi of disrespect. "It was like he threw a bomb at me."

Mr Nakasone warned Mr Koizumi that, in one of the world's most rapidly ageing nations, many older people might take personally his attempt to enforce an age limit. "If they give the impression old people aren't needed, then all the old people in the country will oppose them," he said.

Mr Koizumi asked the two elder statesmen to resign because the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is making final adjustments to its candidate line-up for the 9 November elections. Official campaigning begins on Tuesday.

Mr Koizumi is eager to present a refreshed LDP to voters to underscore his intention to reform Japan.

Mr Miyazawa became a politician 49 years ago and was elected Prime Minister in No-vember 1991. He lost that office in a no-confidence vote within two years.

In a country where politicians in their 40s are considered up-and-coming, critics say Japan's long-serving ageing politicians block others' careers. This is compounded by Japan's seniority-driven society.

Last month Mr Koizumi made Shinzo Abe, aged 49, his deputy in the party. And he recently instituted a policy that makes those older than 73 ineligible to run for proportional representation seats for the LDP.

Both Mr Nakasone and Mr Miyazawa occupy such proportional representation seats, which are awarded based on the number of votes a party receives, not by the number of votes won by a single candidate.

The 480-seat lower house consists of 300 legislators chosen in single-seat districts and 180 elected through proportional representation.

Party officials had been considering making an exception for former prime ministers to allow them to run for proportional seats regardless of age, but Mr Koizumi ruled against it. Mr Nakasone says he was promised, before Mr Koizumi took office, that he could keep his proportional seat for as long as he wanted it.