The by-election in Ehime District No. 3 is scheduled to take place on Oct. 22. Amid declining cabinet support ratings, this will become a race that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government cannot afford to lose. The selection of candidates is sparking a battle between Abe’s two cabinet members, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso and Minister for Economy, Trade and Industry Hiroshige Seko.
The by-election will be held to fill a seat left open since Lower House member Toru Shiraishi (LDP) died on March 17. On April 2, a ceremony was held to “remember the life of Toru Shiraishi.” Aso, leader of the faction that Shiraishi belonged to, attended the event and nominated his second son, Hiroki, as successor on the spot.
This triggered objections from Parliamentary Vice-Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Takumi Ihara, who is elected to the Upper House to represent Ehime. He belongs to the UH branch of the Hosoda faction, which Seko leads, and helps Seko at METI. Before entering national politics, Ihara served as mayor of Shikokuchuo, which is located inside Ehime’s third district. As he long hoped to switch to a LH seat, he reacted with anger to Aso’s out-of-the-blue nomination.
The LDP chapter of Ehime Prefecture decided to select a candidate from the general public. Meanwhile, it convinced Ihara to stay in the UH, saying, “If you switch to the LH, the LDP may lose your seat to the opposition in an UH by-election.” Ihara decided to stay, and as a result, the prefectural chapter received only one application, from Hiroki Shiraishi, and finally decided to back him on July 1.
But many people conjectured that crafty Aso must have forestalled Ihara’s attempt to run in the by-election in a bid to spite Seko. The relationship between Aso and Seko suddenly became strained around February and March this year. Seko began freezing in front of Aso, just like a rabbit held spellbound by a snake.
The deterioration of their ties began at a time when Japan and the U.S. met for the bilateral economic dialogue. Seko claimed that METI is in charge of trade policy and tried to exert his influence. But this drew ire from Aso, who chairs the dialogue. Aso, who was concerned that the focus of the economic dialogue may shift from economic cooperation to trade friction, saw Seko guilelessly chatting with hawkish U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross. “Seko is a loudmouth,” Aso told people around him. “He tries to be nice to everyone. He cannot handle negotiations that put our national interests at stake.”
Seko also got on Aso’s nerves this spring when he called for retracting the goal that the government set to rebuild its national finances. Though Prime Minister Abe is not very in favor of raising the consumption tax and many people think that the goal of achieving a primary balance surplus is not viable, Aso took Seko’s proposal as a rejection of what Aso has been saying in Diet deliberations.
An influential, pro-Aso politician who acts in the interest of the business sector told former Vice-Minister for Economy, Trade and Industry Ikuro Sugawara to get rid of Seko, but it was already too late. The relationship between Aso and Seko had gone beyond repair.
The strained relationship between these two cabinet members is also Abe’s biggest headache. Though it is apparent that Aso is more influential than Seko, both of them have long supported Abe’s second administration.
The proxy war that erupted in Ehime District No. 3 ended, but a flashpoint still lingers. In a personnel reshuffle scheduled to take place on Aug. 3, Abe will surely retain Aso, but Seko is also widely expected to remain as a cabinet minister. As the U.S. government led by President Donald Trump becomes more assertive with its trade policy, if both cabinet members stay in the government, their discord may widen and become an obstacle to the Abe government. (Slightly abridged)