TOKYO -- Former Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe died early today, opening the way to a wide-open power struggle at the top of the governing Liberal Democratic Party for the right to succeed Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu.
Mr. Abe, 67, had been the leading candidate to succeed Mr. Kaifu until last year, when his health began to fail after a bile duct operation.
The struggle that will follow his death will determine whether a man of the middle-aged generation will succeed to the prime ministry some time this year, or one of the party's old-guard bosses who have long waited for the honor will manage to fight back from the disgraces of the deep scandals that abruptly lifted Mr. Kaifu into the post in 1989.
The cause of death was officially given today as heart failure, but Mr. Abe had plainly been seriously ill for more than a year.
He had been the choice of the party's old guard despite having been stained by the 1989 Recruit insider stock trading scandal.
The men of his generation, known in the party as the "Men of Taisho" because they were born two emperors ago, have wanted to throw Mr. Kaifu out virtually from the day he was raised out of the middle ranks of a minor faction to lead the government through the scandal.
Their ambition to dump Mr. Kaifu was thwarted for most of the past year by the fact that Mr. Abe, though clearly dying, clung tenaciously to his claim as the next prime minister. They will now be free to fight it out to select a new candidate.
But men of Mr. Kaifu's generation, now in their 50s and known as the "Men of Showa" because they were born under the late Emperor Hirohito, have used the nearly two years of his Cabinet to build a power base.
For the old guard, key figures will be former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita, who was driven from office by the scandal but remains a central LDP power broker; former Finance Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, who also was driven out by the scandal; and former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, who resigned from the party during the scandal and was readmitted last month.
For the men of Mr. Kaifu's middle-aged generation, the key figure will be Ichiro Ozawa, forced to resign as the LDP's secretary-general last month when voters overwhelmingly rejected his attempt to dump the 80-year-old governor of Tokyo in a deal to get opposition parties to support Mr. Kaifu's pledge of $9 billion to help the Persian Gulf war effort.
Despite that failure, Mr. Ozawa has been widely regarded as the most effective political operative behind the Kaifu Cabinet and the middle-aged generation's most likely candidate for prime minister.
Mr. Kaifu's term ends in October.