Fumio Kishida, a former foreign minister and policy chief of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, on Aug. 26 announced he will run for the LDP presidential election in late September to challenge the incumbent, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.
Kishida’s move has dashed Suga’s hopes for his uncontested election for a second term.
The election, in which card-carrying members and supporters of the party across the nation will also vote as well as LDP Diet members, should be focused on Suga’s leadership performance over the past year.
During the election campaign, the candidates should engage in rigorous, in-depth debate on Suga’s responses to key policy challenges, particularly the novel coronavirus pandemic, and the future of the party and the nation.
For Suga, who succeeded Shinzo Abe as prime minister last autumn after Abe resigned due to a health issue, the biggest policy challenge has been how to battle the virus.
The Suga administration, however, has done a poor job of handling the public health crisis, making a series of misguided policy decisions and belated responses to key issues.
Its dismal performance has led to the current dire situation, with explosive growth in new cases straining health care systems across the nation. It is difficult to argue that the administration has fulfilled its most basic mission of protecting the lives and livelihoods of the people.
Suga’s policy failures have cast doubt over his leadership qualities and political approach. He should be criticized for unfounded optimism, self-righteous refusal to pay attention to dissenting voices, failure to pay due respect to expert opinions and a lack of the ability to send out effective messages that resonate with the public.
Voters’ distrust of Suga was the main reason for the LDP’s defeats in the recent Tokyo metropolitan assembly election and the Yokohama mayoral poll.
If he wants to be re-elected, Suga needs to accept the harsh voter verdict in a sincere and humble manner. It is vital for him to reflect on his first year in office and candidly admit the mistakes he has made.
As he is challenging the incumbent leader of the ruling party, Kishida needs to say clearly how he assesses the administration’s policy responses to the COVID-19 pandemic so far and how he would deal with the crisis.
The evaluation of the Suga administration’s job performance should not be based only on its battle against the virus, however.
The government has yet to retract its contentious decision to reject six of the nominees to the Science Council of Japan, an issue that concerns academic freedom.
Suga has also been reluctant to uncover the facts about political scandals that plagued the previous Abe administration.
They include allegations concerning payments by Abe’s support group of part of the expenses for luxury Tokyo hotel banquets to entertain voters from his constituency in Yamaguchi Prefecture, which were held on the eves of annual tax-funded cherry blossom viewing parties hosted by Abe.
Many questions remain unanswered also with regard to the dubious sale of state-owned land to Moritomo Gakuen, a school operator linked to Abe’s wife, Akie. The widow of an official at the Finance Ministry’s Kinki Local Finance Bureau whose suicide in 2018 was related to the scandal is demanding that the government disclose the truth about the ministry’s falsification of official documents over the land sale.
Suga’s failure to delve into these scandals has prevented repairing the damage done to the public confidence in politics.
In last year’s LDP presidential election, held hastily following Abe’s abrupt decision to step down, card-carrying members of the party were not allowed to cast ballots.
Political pundits said the simplified election format was chosen to undermine the campaign of former LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba, who garnered many local member votes in past LDP leadership polls.
The LDP’s leadership wanted to pick Suga, who was Abe’s chief Cabinet secretary, through dealings among party factions, according to the pundits.
This time, local party members will also vote. They are allocated 383 votes, the same number as those cast by LDP Diet members. This means the election results will be considerably influenced by the sentiment among local members, which is relatively similar to that among the general voting public.
The LDP leadership race will also choose Japan’s new prime minister, who will have to face the verdict of voters in the looming Lower House election. The LDP has a duty to ensure open policy debates during campaigning before the nation’s public.
LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, a party heavyweight who leads a major faction in it, recently said he would back the reappointment of Suga as party leader.
Abe, who has strong influence over the largest LDP faction, headed by Hiroyuki Hosoda, a former secretary-general, and Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso, who leads the second largest group, are also expected to support Suga.
If the LDP’s new chief is elected through backroom wheeling and dealing among factions again, the party will only become even more divorced from the people.
–The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 27