BY SATOSHI SUGIYAMA, STAFF WRITER
Three candidates running to replace Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as head of the Liberal Democratic Party appeared in their first public faceoff Tuesday, each casting themselves as best qualified to guide the country through the rest of the novel coronavirus pandemic and to address its sluggish economy.
Gathered at LDP headquarters in Tokyo for the event, which was held the same day notice of the forthcoming party election was formally issued, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, former defense minister Shigeru Ishiba and LDP policy council chairman Fumio Kishida each participated in a speech and a news conference.
Tuesday’s proceedings mark the official kick-off of a weeklong campaign that will effectively choose the nation’s next leader, at a time when the country is ravaged by the virus, reeling from a historic economic downturn and soul-searching to fill in the void left by Abe, whose seven year and eight month tenure had reinstated a sense of stability in Japanese politics.
The candidates largely stuck to their scripts, repeating the overall themes of the earlier speeches they’d each delivered when declaring their candidacy.
Suga cited his experience as right-hand man to Abe, pledging to double down on the prime minister’s policies — specifically mentioning Abenomics, economic rescue packages for firms taking a hit from the pandemic and foreign policies based on the Japan-U.S. alliance and the principle of a free and open Indo-Pacific.
“I’ll continue to take measures without hesitation,” Suga said. “The route lying ahead of us isn’t easy going at all. But if I become president of the Liberal Democrats, I’ll make a Cabinet that works for the people by deconstructing bureaucratic sectionalism, clearing away vested interests, being unbounded by precedents and forging ahead with regulatory reform with all the strength I have.”
The top government spokesman also incorporated his long-held policy aspirations into ideas for responding to the virus, including further promotion of the Go To Travel domestic tourism promotion campaign, intended to invigorate the tourism industry, and digitalization to popularize online education and telemedicine. Suga touched upon his willingness to establish a government agency specializing in the digitalization of government affairs.
The three candidates were aligned on allocating resources and the population outside of the greater Tokyo area. They also vowed to increase support for health care workers and expand virus testing capabilities ahead of the fall and winter seasons, when it is feared the number of cases will again surge.
For Kishida and Ishiba, Suga’s commanding lead in vote counts presents almost impossible odds of turning the tables in their favor. The party’s presidential election has been downsized due to Abe’s abrupt resignation, skipping rank-and-file votes that would have given a boost to Ishiba — and possibly Kishida as well.
Worried about infection risks, the party also decided to halt the practice of candidates making an electioneering tour throughout the nation.
Nevertheless, both appeared determined to present a sharp contrast with Suga, and thus Abe, throughout Tuesday’s appearance, highlighting the negative consequences of policies under the Abe administration and arguing that they would make necessary adjustments.
Ishiba stuck to his guns with veiled attacks on the current administration, some of which were criticized as divisive. He made a dig at the administration’s problematic handling of official government documents, a top-down decision-making approach that critics say has turned bureaucrats into yes men for the Prime Minister’s Office and fiscal policies he believes have benefited only the rich.
“Policies and conditions set by a Liberal Democratic Party government should be fair to everyone,” the former defense chief said. “What I want to accomplish is ‘a great reset,’ meaning rewriting the nation’s blueprints once again — otherwise this nation won’t be able to make it through the next generation. … I’m hoping to consider and remake the way the nation should be, once again, together with people.”
In a subsequent news conference, Suga conceded “matters that aren’t right, objectively speaking, need to be reviewed,” in an apparent attempt to make clear that he does not plan to inherit the current administration’s mindset in its entirety.
Regarding the issue of scandals related to alleged forgery of public documents, he said, “I don’t think we should have this kind of problem ever again.”
Responding to frustrations that the government has not convened a Diet session to discuss its response to the virus crisis, Ishiba indicated that he would hold a Diet session to amend related legislation so that it includes enhanced powers of enforcement and provision for compensation “before the outbreak is over,” scolding the current government over its position.
Kishida’s jabs at the administration were less obvious, but he noted that Abenomics had not necessarily benefited the middle class or residents outside cities.
“I feel that the issue of inequality has emerged as a subject that needs to be confronted seriously from a political standpoint,” the policy council chairman said, adding that he would boost support in education and housing for middle-class households, advance urban planning through digitalization and raise the minimum wage. “We also need to think about the distribution of (Abenomic’s) growth, and the system of taxation.”
The odds are overwhelmingly in favor of Suga. Five out of seven mainstream LDP factions have already announced they will back him, with apparent ulterior motives to secure influence over his agenda-setting authority and also personnel assignments in his anticipated Cabinet.
Suga neither has his own nor belongs to any other caucus within the party, but is still expected to secure over 70 percent of LDP lawmaker votes.
Opinion polls show popularity for Suga has been growing. A JNN poll taken on Aug. 1 and 2 showed just 4 percent of respondents cited Suga as an appropriate politician to succeed Abe, while 28 percent backed Ishiba. But according to a JNN poll from last weekend, following Abe’s resignation announcement, Suga’s approval rate had jumped twelvefold to 48 percent, overtaking Ishiba’s 27 percent.
In an interview with the Asahi newspaper conducted Monday, Suga rejected the assertion that he would be influenced by faction-based politics, insisting that he would not accept requests from the factions in relation to Cabinet or LDP executive posts.
However, concerns remain that the early endorsement by the party’s Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai was a quid pro quo, with strings attached and expectations for Suga to adhere to Nikai’s demands on critical Cabinet appointments and policies. There is also concern that Suga could be dragged into an internal power struggle between Nikai and other factions, which would corrode the administration’s credibility.
Asked at the news conference about the prospect of calling a snap election, Ishiba explicitly ruled such a move out, whereas Kishida and Suga hinted that it remained a possibility as long as the virus infections are under control.
Representatives for the three candidates had each filed the necessary election registrations on their behalf earlier Tuesday. A majority of 535 ballots from among 394 Diet members and 141 delegates from across the country’s 47 prefectures is necessary to win the battle. The election will take place on Monday of next week, with the next prime minister expected to be appointed at a Diet session set for Sept. 16.