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Abe, Ishiba scrambling to secure local LDP members' votes ahead of presidential election

TOKYO -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and former Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba are accelerating their efforts to secure as many votes from regional party members as possible in the upcoming party presidential race.

Abe, who presides over the ruling party, is expected to meet more than 70 percent of LDP local assembly members across the country by Sept. 7, when campaigning officially kicks off in the lead-up to the Sept. 20 vote. The move comes after his bitter loss to Ishiba by a wide margin in terms of the number of votes cast by party members in a previous party leadership contest in 2012.

Ishiba, meanwhile, is struggling to drum up support from rank-and-file party members to catch up with Abe, who has maintained an edge over his rival in the number of prospective votes from LDP lawmakers in the National Diet.

"There is criticism that the gap between central and local Japan is widening, but that's not the case at all," Prime Minister Abe said during a meeting with local assembly members at a hotel in Nagoya on Aug. 30. "Tax revenues for local governments have posted record highs, and Aichi Prefecture has topped other prefectures in terms of corporate and related tax revenue," he told the audience. Abe later attended another meeting with local assembly members in Mie Prefecture, also in central Japan.

Abe resumed his tour of regional areas on Aug. 25 after refraining from them for a while to respond to the aftermath of the torrential rain disaster that hit wide areas in western Japan in July.

On Aug. 26, Abe was in the city of Kagoshima in southwestern Japan, officially announcing his candidacy in the LDP leadership election with the iconic Mount Sakurajima volcano in the background. During a meeting with LDP lawmakers, Abe referred to the late Edo period alliance between the clans of Satsuma (present-day western Kagoshima Prefecture) and Choshu (the area now in western Yamaguchi Prefecture -- where Abe was elected to the House of Representatives) in toppling the Tokugawa shogunate in the late 19th century. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration.

On Aug. 27, Abe was in the city of Fukui, praising the late Edo period samurai Hashimoto Sanai of the Fukui clan during a lecture, to the delight of the local audience. Hashimoto was portrayed in NHK's Sunday night period drama series "Segodon," featuring samurai Saigo Takamori from Satsuma, who played a pivotal role in the Meiji Restoration.

Before Sept. 7, Prime Minister Abe is expected to meet local assembly members in 19 prefectures, including the northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido. He is also inviting local legislators in areas he cannot visit to the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo for dining sessions.

For Abe, winning against Ishiba in terms of the number of votes from local party members in the LDP race is imperative to maintain his centripetal force within the party after being re-elected to his third consecutive term as party president. On Aug. 29, Abe pleaded for cooperation to members of the House of Councillors with whom he met at the prime minister's office, saying, "Please lend me your support as votes from party members are essential to me."

Abe has yet to visit some prefectures, however, including Ishiba's home turf of Tottori in western Japan -- as visiting there would not be cost-effective, according to an aide to the prime minister. Other areas he has not visited include Kochi Prefecture in the Shikoku region that is home to veteran lawmakers belonging to the LDP's intraparty faction led by Ishiba, as well as Nagano, Shimane and Kyoto prefectures. These are the stomping grounds of heavyweights in intraparty factions led by LDP General Council Chairman Wataru Takeshita and former LDP President Sadakazu Tanigaki, both of which will allow its members to decide for themselves whom to vote for in the presidential election.

In contrast with Abe's relatively short-term strategy, Ishiba has long prepared for the coming showdown, visiting all of Japan's 47 prefectures to exchange opinions with local assembly members after the 2012 party presidential contest. On Aug. 30, he attended a meeting with Shizuoka Prefectural Assembly members in the city of Hamamatsu, where he remarked, "You must speak out squarely even in the face of criticism." Ishiba seems hopeful that local assembly members, who have more contact with rank-and-file party members, will help convince them to vote for him.

In recent weeks, however, Ishiba has come to make such meetings with local assembly members closed to the public on many occasions. This move is apparently the result of pressure from party affiliates in favor of Abe. It appears that the race will be a duel between the prime minister backed by key LDP factions and Ishiba with minor factional support, and a wary senior official of the Ishiba faction commented, "(Ishiba's) meetings are likely to be quashed if their dates and destinations are leaked to outsiders in advance."

Meanwhile, Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Seiko Noda on Aug. 30 decided to abandon her bid for the presidential contest. Noda intends to rally behind Abe in the forthcoming race.

(Japanese original by Keiko Takahashi, Kazumasa Kawabe, Shu Furukawa and Hiroyuki Tanaka, Political News Department)

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