Liberal Democratic Party heavyweight Shigeru Ishiba announced Aug. 10 he will contest the party leadership election in September.
The former LDP secretary-general will be going up against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is expected to shortly announce his bid to seek re-election as LDP president for a third term.
In the previous election to choose the ruling party’s leader, Abe was re-elected unopposed.
Ishiba’s candidacy ensures that for the first time in six years, there will be an actual vote to elect the LDP chief. By virtue of the party’s majority control in the Lower House, whoever wins will automatically become prime minister.
Ishiba is a seasoned and argumentative politician who has served in key party and government positions, including the party’s posts of secretary-general and Policy Research Council chairman. He has also held Cabinet portfolios.
Ishiba can be expected to stage focused and meaningful debates with the prime minister.
It is pretty rare in the LDP’s 63-year history for the incumbent president to be challenged in a leadership election.
That has occurred in only two LDP presidential polls since 1994, when the party crawled back to power in a coalition with the Social Democratic Party of Japan and the since disbanded New Party Sakigake.
In 1999, Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi faced two contenders, Koichi Kato and Taku Yamasaki. In 2003, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi battled three rivals: Shizuka Kamei, Takao Fujii and Masahiko Komura.
Kato and Yamasaki criticized Obuchi’s move to forge an alliance with the Liberal Party and Komeito, the LDP’s current junior coalition partner. Kamei and the two others who challenged Koizumi took exception to the prime minister’s political approach, which was aimed at enhancing his office’s leadership in policymaking by setting up political battles with opponents and dissidents whom he called “resisting forces.”
In both cases, the incumbent won. But these elections revolved around clear and specific political issues, and the challengers mounted sharp verbal attacks on the prime minister.
In planning his campaign for the party poll, Ishiba adopted the slogan of “honesty and fairness.”
There is no doubt that Ishiba is trying to focus his campaign strategy on criticism about Abe’s insincere responses to two political scandals involving school operators Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Educational Institution.
The scandals have destroyed public trust in the government’s administrative fairness and integrity, and highlighted Abe’s reluctance to offer honest and straightforward answers to inconvenient opposition questions.
During an Aug. 10 news conference to announce his candidacy for the election, Ishiba unveiled a “100-day plan” to restore public trust in politics and administration.
He stressed his intention to review the administration’s arrogant and high-handed way to deal with Diet affairs and reconsider the policymaking leadership of the prime minister’s office within a limited time frame.
Ishiba has avoided direct criticism of the Abe administration’s political style. But he is obviously seeking to underscore the harmful effects of Abe’s dominant political power.
If so, Ishiba has a duty to clarify in presidential debates his views about specific problems with Abe’s political approach and his own plans to fix them.
Five of the seven LDP factions have already decided to support Abe’s bid for a third term. These groups are obviously currying favor in hopes of being rewarded with key party and government appointments if Abe wins. The situation speaks volumes about how the party’s political vigor has been diminished due to Abe’s overwhelming power.
One notable factor of the election is the increased weight of votes by local card-carrying party members and supporters across the nation, which will be on a par with the importance of votes cast by LDP Diet members.
In the LDP presidential election in 2001, held after Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori’s resignation, Koizumi, who was not regarded as the favorite, scored an unexpected victory after it became clear he had garnered a big majority of votes cast by local party members and supporters.
His enormous popularity among local LDP members greatly affected the Diet members’ decisions at the poll.
The election to choose the leader of the ruling party offers a great opportunity for public debates over the administration’s past performances and future policy directions.
The LDP should take this opportunity to improve the effectiveness of presidential debates and ensure that the candidates will offer clear and honest policy views and proposals.
Unless the party ensures that the debates will be worthy of the process of virtually choosing the nation’s political leader, it cannot hope to restore public trust in politics.