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PM Abe set to enter ring against heavyweight Ishiba in LDP leadership race

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is set to announce his intention to run in the Liberal Democratic Party's (LDP) presidential election next week in a bid for a third consecutive term as leader of the ruling party, in what looks to become a head-on clash between Abe and former LDP secretary-general Shigeru Ishiba.

Abe, 63, is poised to highlight his nearly six years of experience of steering the administration since his return to power in 2012. The premier has already secured support from five intraparty factions including the largest Hosoda faction led by former chief Cabinet secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda. While the prime minister maintains the edge over Ishiba, 61, in terms of votes to be cast by LDP legislators in the National Diet, he is apparently wary of Ishiba, who is stepping up his criticism against the Abe administration. This has prompted Abe to wait until late August to announce his candidacy in the election, with less than two weeks before the race will officially kick off.

The LDP's leadership election management committee on Aug. 21 announced that the poll will be formally declared on Sept. 7 for a vote on Sept. 20. Because Abe was re-elected party president without contest in the previous leadership race in 2015, the upcoming poll will see the first campaign battle between candidates in six years.

On Aug. 21, senior members of the five party factions in favor of Abe met at LDP headquarters in Tokyo and reaffirmed their plan to set up a campaign headquarters in response to the prime minister's declaration of his candidacy next week. As LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai is visiting China from Aug. 29 to Sept. 1, a senior Hosoda faction member suggested that the premier would announce his plan to throw his hat in the ring for the poll before Nikai's departure.

Former LDP secretary-general Shigeru Ishiba (Mainichi)

Prime Minister Abe, meanwhile, was on a golf course on vacation in the village of Narusawa, Yamanashi Prefecture, near Tokyo on Aug. 21. Asked by reporters about his morale and physical stamina ahead of the party presidential race, the prime minister replied, "I would like to build them up day by day." He was apparently not in a rush to manifest his election bid having such solid factional support already under his belt.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga displayed his confidence in Abe's third consecutive victory in the party leadership race, telling the audience at a lecture in Sapporo the same day, "It will be an opportunity for party members to judge the outcome of our efforts so far."

Ishiba, meanwhile, has raised the banner of "honest and fair politics" in his bid to win the presidential contest, with the highly publicized favoritism scandals rocking the Abe administration -- involving school operators Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Educational Institution -- in mind. The LDP bigwig has also slammed Abe over the way he aims to revise the war-renouncing Constitution. By bringing their differences into sharp focus, Ishiba is attempting to garner broader support among party members to overtake his archrival.

Abe's camp, however, is well aware of his opponent's tactics. A senior LDP official tried to keep Ishiba in check by noting on Aug. 21, "It will be a mud-slinging race if he advocates 'honesty and fairness.' They must engage in substantial policy debate." Aides to the prime minister also expressed displeasure with Ishiba, saying, "It is unacceptable for someone within the same party to shoot the prime minister from behind." Prime Minister Abe delayed clarifying whether he would run in the presidential race on the grounds of the government's need to respond to the deadly rain disaster in western Japan, but underneath he apparently wanted to avoid being lured into the ring with Ishiba at an early date.

At a meeting of the party leadership election management committee, a member said, "There is someone (Ishiba) who wants to have many debate sessions, while the other (Abe) is reluctant." The panel decided to finalize the matter at the next meeting on Aug. 27.

On Aug. 21, Ishiba quipped before the assembled media, "I want him (Abe) to clearly state why he doesn't want to engage in debate sessions. That'll deprive us of an opportunity to speak out before the public."

LDP General Council Chairman Wataru Takeshita formally expressed his support for Ishiba in the September election at a press conference on Aug. 21. His faction, however, will effectively allow its members to decide whom to vote for in the forthcoming contest.

In the leadership race, candidates will vie for a total of 810 ballots -- 405 from LDP legislators in the National Diet (except for the heads of both chambers) and another 405 from party members. The votes from the latter group will be tallied nationwide before being distributed to each candidate. The minimum voting age among party members will be lowered from 20 to 18, while the minimum duration of party membership fee payments to be eligible to vote will be relaxed from two years to one year.

(Japanese original by Akira Murao and Yusuke Matsukura, Political News Department)

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