TOKYO -- A ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) faction led by party executive Wataru Takeshita will not compel its members to vote for a particular candidate in the upcoming party leadership race -- which will likely be a one-on-one contest between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and party heavyweight Shigeru Ishiba.
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Among 55 legislators belonging to the Takeshita faction, most of the 34 members of the House of Representatives support Abe's bid for a third term as party president, while all 21 members of the House of Councillors are likely to vote for Ishiba, the former party secretary-general.
The decision to give members a free choice came at a faction executive meeting after Takeshita, head of the party's General Council, unsuccessfully attempted to form a consensus within his faction on which candidate the faction would back in the September election.
The meeting was attended by five lower house members including Takeshita, Toshimitsu Motegi, minister in charge of economic revitalization; and Taimei Yamaguchi, head of the Party Organization and Campaign Headquarters; as well as three upper chamber members including Hiromi Yoshida, secretary-general of the upper house caucus.
Lower house members present at the gathering insisted one after another that the faction as a whole should support Abe, but Takeshita did not express his own view on the LDP leadership election.
After the meeting, Yamaguchi said, "A majority of lower house members (belonging to our faction) support the prime minister. We'll leave the decision by the upper house caucus to the discretion of Mr. Yoshida."
Mikio Aoki, former head of the LDP's upper house caucus, who still wields strong influence on the faction even after his retirement as a legislator, has asked Yoshida to back Abe's rival.
The faction, however, will also allow upper house legislators to back the prime minister and lower house members to vote for Ishiba. The faction will hold a meeting in Nagano Aug. 9, where it will officially announce its policy regarding the upcoming election.
The 21 upper house members of the Takeshita faction support Ishiba largely because 10 of them will be up for re-election in the summer of next year. The term of upper house members is six years and an election for half of the members is held every three years. While the prime minister currently has the upper hand in the LDP presidential race, these upper chamber legislators fear that if the Abe administration loses support from the public following re-election, it will adversely affect the outcome of the summer 2019 upper chamber race.
Takeshita once explored the possibility of his entire faction backing Ishiba, but gave up on the idea after lower house members in his group objected to the move.
The Takeshita faction's move is expected to have a certain level of impact on Abe's plan to score a landslide victory in the upcoming LDP presidential election, although he is certain to win votes from an overwhelming majority of LDP legislators.
Three intraparty factions led respectively by Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso, party Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, and party Policy Research Council Chairman Fumio Kishida, as well as one headed by former party Secretary-General Hiroyuki Hosoda from which Abe hails, have expressed support for the prime minister's bid to stay on as LDP leader. Furthermore, most of the 72 LDP legislators who have no factional affiliation are likely to cast their ballots for Abe. Because of this, a senior member of the Nikai faction said it was likely the prime minister would retain the upper hand in the leadership race.
With the Takeshita faction's decision, however, Ishiba will receive organized support from upper house members belonging to the faction, in addition to the 20 lawmakers in his own faction.
In the first round of the 2012 party leadership race, Abe was defeated by Ishiba, who received overwhelming support from rank-and-file party members, but beat Ishiba in the run-off vote.
Abe and his election strategists have worked out a scenario in which he would "tighten a net" comprising lawmakers around Ishiba by winning support from most of the intraparty factions, and then score an overwhelming victory by garnering rank-and-file members' votes, thereby eliminating the chance of Ishiba replacing Abe as LDP leader.
However, the fact that upper house members belonging to the Takeshita faction support Ishiba could lessen the chance of Abe winning an overwhelming majority of votes from rank-and-file members.
Of the 21 upper house members belonging to the faction, four were elected through the proportional representation system with the backing of the construction industry, an organization formed by Self-Defense Forces members, and dentists' organizations.
Since a significant number of rank-and-file LDP members who belong to these bodies may vote for Ishiba, the influence of moves made by upper house members belonging to the Takeshita faction cannot be underestimated.
An individual linked to the Ishiba faction, which has been increasingly isolated within the LDP, said it is "grateful" for those within the Takeshita faction who will support Ishiba.
(Japanese original by Keiko Takahashi and Hiroyuki Tanaka, Political News Department)