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LDP leadership election: 'Honesty, fairness' a principle for politicians, not a goal

Shigeru Ishiba, left, and Shinzo Abe (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- "Honesty, fairness" is the slogan of former Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) secretary-general Shigeru Ishiba in his bid to win the ruling party's Sept. 20 presidential race against incumbent and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

However, the rather innocent-sounding message is triggering criticism in a big way, not only from Ishiba's opponents, but even from his supporters. "It sounds like a slogan from an opposition candidate," fumed an Abe supporter. "Don't wage a personal attack," advised someone from the Ishiba camp.

The slogan is seen as a subtle attack against Abe and his alleged link -- which he denies vehemently -- with favoritism scandals involving two school operators, Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Educational Institution. Critics say the Ishiba slogan rekindles these scandals. Perhaps this is so, but isn't these detractors' aversion a reflection of their recognition that "dishonesty, unfairness" do exist, say commentators.

"It is like a sushi chef getting angry at another chef for saying his restaurant is 'clean' because the first chef is worried that his shop is dirty and takes the other's statement as a "personal attack" against him," says Takashi Odajima, a popular columnist, about the LDP infighting. "It is only natural that sushi restaurants are clean. Similarly, 'honesty, fairness' should be a principle for a politician, not a goal. It is abnormal for a contender (in a party presidential race) to compete on such a platform."

In February last year, after the Moritomo Gakuen scandal emerged in which the school operator received a massive discount on the purchase of a state-owned land lot after naming Abe's wife Akie as the planned elementary school's honorary principal, the prime minister insisted that he would quit as the premier and a Diet member if he or his wife were found to be involved in the questionable transaction.

However, when it was revealed that the Finance Ministry, which negotiated the sale with Moritomo, removed Akie's name from a relevant document, Abe denied his responsibility, saying that what he meant by his earlier statement was he was not involved in any bribery connected with the Moritomo case.

In the favoritism allegation involving the Kake Educational Institution, whose head has been a close friend of Abe's for years, Abe was quoted as saying that Kake's planned veterinary school is "a good idea" in a document submitted to the Diet by the western Japan prefecture of Ehime, where the school was planned. The school operator later explained that its official lied to the prefectural government when he passed on what he described as Abe's positive statement about the project. So a number of questions and mysteries remain unanswered.

In an opinion poll conducted by the Mainichi Shimbun on Sept. 1 and 2, 72 percent of respondents answered that they were not convinced by the explanations made by Abe and the government over the Moritomo and Kake cases. Although the job approval rating for the Abe administration remained the same, fewer voters think that a series of scandals linked to the Abe regime have been settled.

In the LDP presidential race that kicked off on Sept. 7, Abe, who controls a majority of votes among Diet members, faces off against the challenger Ishiba. The contender told reporters when he announced his intention to run in the leadership race on Aug. 10 that it is a fact that people have doubts about a number of issues. "Politics cannot serve its role if people do not think the administration is fair, honest," he said, in an apparent reference to the Moritomo and Kake affairs.

Columnist Odajima emphasized that it is only natural for a candidate in an election to point out the weaknesses of his opponent and introduce his own policy, but now Ishiba is being criticized "for the very action of criticism, and debate among candidates no longer exists." A deep gap appears to lie between the public perception of the situation and the atmosphere inside the ruling party where legislators and other members hardly have debate under Abe's predominance.

In the presidential race, Ishiba requested that at least four debate sessions, one more than in the 2012 LDP leadership race, be held, but the party's election management commission did not listen to his calls. The commission even banned mailing policy documents to party members saying it would be too costly. In the meantime, local LDP politicians are invited to the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo or locations where Abe visits around the country to meet the prime minister. Even people inside the LDP criticize such tactics as "the use of position by the incumbent."

In 2010, when it was an opposition party, the LDP stated in its party platform that it would "seek policies and conditions fair to everyone." Fairness is part of the party's goal. Professor emeritus Takashi Kato, a political philosopher at Seikei University where the prime minister used to attend, explained that the LDP presidential election has a very public aspect as an occasion to select the next prime minister. "You shouldn't use cheap methods to win the competition, instead you should turn it into an opportunity for open policy debate for all members of the general public."

(Japanese original by Hiroyuki Wada, General Digital News Center)

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