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Abe favors stressing achievements over policy debate with Ishiba ahead of LDP election

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe poses for a photo in the city of Toyama on Aug. 27, 2018. (Mainichi)
Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Shigeru Ishiba discusses his policy proposals ahead of the party's September leadership election, at a news conference in Tokyo on Aug. 27, 2018. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe aims to emphasize his government's achievements over the past five years and eight months during the upcoming presidential election for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) rather than having one-on-one debates on specific policy issues with rival candidate Shigeru Ishiba.

The Sept. 20 party leadership race, whose campaigning is set to kick off Sept. 7, will be a two-way battle between Abe, 63, and Ishiba, 61, former secretary-general of the party.

Abe has the upper hand in gaining votes from LDP legislators in the National Diet because most of the key intraparty factions are supporting his bid for a third consecutive term as LDP president. Still, he and his campaign staff are attempting to evade bold policy debate.

"I'm confident that I'm full of vigor and physical strength," Abe said as he affirmed his candidacy in the leadership race at the Kaigata fishing port in Tarumizu, Kagoshima Prefecture, on Aug. 26. He chose this day to declare that he will run for re-election as LDP president because the day marks the fifth year and eighth month since he returned to power on Dec. 26, 2012.

He made the announcement with Mount Sakurajima, an active volcano, in the background in a bid to emphasize that he attaches importance to revitalizing local economies.

In a speech he delivered in Kanoya, Kagoshima Prefecture, earlier the same day, Abe said he wants to carve out a path to a new era through cooperation between Satsuma (currently western Kagoshima Prefecture) and Choshu (currently western Yamaguchi Prefecture where Abe was elected to the House of Representatives). He compared cooperation between these two areas to an alliance between these then feudal domains in toppling the Tokugawa shogunate in the late 19th century.

Prime Minister Abe has chosen not to respond to arguments repeatedly made by Ishiba on TV and at news conferences. Ishiba emphasizes that he is striving for "honest" and "fair" politics following the prime minister's favoritism scandals involving two school operators -- Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Educational Institution.

Abe apparently fears that if he counters each of Ishiba's arguments, it could again draw the public's attention to these scandals, losing a considerable number of votes from rank-and-file members in the party's local chapters.

The prime minister is adopting a low-key approach in his election strategy partly because he intends to keep solid backing from rank-and-file members. Opinion polls conducted by news organizations show that an overwhelming majority of those supporting the LDP back Abe over Ishiba.

Abe's camp is desperate to score a landslide victory in votes from rank-and-file LDP members to solidify his power base for his third consecutive -- and last -- term. In the 2012 LDP presidential election, Ishiba won far more votes from rank-and-file party members in its local chapters than Abe did, but Abe beat Ishiba in the run-off election in which only LDP legislators cast ballots.

Furthermore, the number of votes allocated to local chapters will increase to 405, the same number of that of LDP legislators, in the upcoming election. Therefore, it is increasingly important to win support from rank-and-file members.

With this fully in mind, Prime Minister Abe said during a speech in the city of Kagoshima on Aug. 26, "Tax revenues are steadily increasing in regional areas. I'd like to put more efforts into measures to make your region more attractive."

Ishiba, who lags far behind Abe in garnering support from LDP legislators, also attaches particular importance to support from ordinary members of the party, and has proposed to have repeated debates with Abe over specific policy issues.

"It's the LDP's responsibility to the state and the public to create as many venues for discussions as possible. Such efforts would meet party president Abe's and my views," Ishiba told reporters in Kusatsu, Shiga Prefecture, on Aug. 26.

However, a senior member of Abe's campaign staff said, "Since the prime minister frequently dispatches messages to the public about his policy measures, there is no need to repeatedly hold one-on-one debates."

With regard to points of contention during campaigning for the LDP presidential election, Prime Minister Abe told reporters on Aug. 26, "The point of contention is nation-building efforts amid major changes in history. We'd like to have heavy discussions."

Abe has proposed these discussions in a bid to counter Ishiba's efforts to clarify points of contention between the two prospective candidates.

One of the pillars is constitutional revisions. The prime minister has proposed to add a paragraph stipulating the existence of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to Article 9 of the Constitution while retaining its war-renouncing paragraph 1 and paragraph 2, which bans Japan from possessing any war potential. Abe aims to win the leadership race, declare that his constitutional reform proposal has won support from party members and submit the LDP's proposal on amendments to the supreme law to the Diet during an extraordinary session in autumn.

Ishiba, who has proposed to delete the second paragraph from Article 9 and define the SDF as war potential in the clause, wants to continue debate on the clause after the presidential election. Therefore, he insists that priority should be placed on the elimination of House of Councillors constituencies comprising multiple prefectures and adding a clause on government responses to emergency situations such as major natural disasters in constitutional revisions.

Another point at issue will be weather the "Abenomics" policy mix promoted by the Abe government should be continued.

In his speech in Kanoya, Abe criticized economic policies adopted by the previous administration led by the now-defunct Democratic Party of Japan, and emphasized that under his rule, the number of smaller businesses that went bankrupt decreased by 30 percent from the previous government. The prime minister added that the ratio of job offers to job seekers in Kagoshima hit a record high.

In Kusatsu, Ishiba argued that the effects of the growth of major companies and big cities will not likely benefit smaller businesses and regional areas.

However, it is difficult for Ishiba to overcome his backtracking by criticizing Abe's policies. Therefore, he said he pursues "honest" and "fair" politics when he announced his candidacy on Aug. 10 with the favoritism scandals involving Moritomo and Kake in mind.

However, Ishiba has been criticized by those backing the prime minister for being just like an opposition party member.

Hiromi Yoshida, secretary-general of the LDP's House of Councillors caucus, also expressed displeasure at Ishiba's stance saying, "I would have a feeling of disgust toward any personal attack." The remarks came despite the fact that Yoshida belongs to the party's Takeshita faction in the upper house, which supports Ishiba.

In response to such criticism, Ishiba told reporters on Aug. 25 he "may change" his slogan if his remarks are "taken that way."

Ishiba is wavering over his election strategy to challenge Prime Minister Abe, who has adopted a low-key, less risky approach to the LDP presidential election.

(Japanese original by Akira Murao and Minami Nomaguchi, Political News Department)

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