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Clashes over party policy have divided Abe, LDP leadership rival Ishiba

Shigeru Ishiba, left, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe talk in the Diet in February 2014. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- The delicate relationship between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) heavyweight Shigeru Ishiba, who will clash head-on in the upcoming party presidential election, has seen twists and turns over the years.

On July 24, 2014, Prime Minister Abe was sounding out Ishiba, an expert in security and then LDP secretary-general, about assuming the post of minister in charge of security legislation that the Abe administration was working on. However, Ishiba declined, as he stuck to a basic security bill that he spearheaded to formulate when the LDP was in the opposition.

Ishiba's rejection of the post offer irritated Abe who flatly told Ishiba, "You can do that when you become party president."

Ishiba had expressed his intention to stay on as LDP secretary-general, which Abe took into consideration. However, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso insisted that Ishiba be replaced, which was echoed by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga. Aso, who formerly served as prime minister, personally harbored a grudge against Ishiba as the latter had called for the then Aso Cabinet to resign en masse in 2009.

The idea of appointing Ishiba to the post of minister in charge of security was aimed at saving the faces of both Aso and Ishiba, while maintaining Abe's predominance in the party by containing Ishiba within the Cabinet amid his ambition to become party president.

There was a strong public backlash against the Abe Cabinet's decision in July 2014 to change the government's interpretation of the war-renouncing Constitution to open the way for introducing security legislation. Aides to Ishiba vehemently opposed the move to appoint him as security minister, saying, "They would thrust responsibility on him." Prime Minister Abe, meanwhile, unleashed his frustrations to his aides, saying, "Such an appointment should be the shortest way for Mr. Ishiba to become prime minister."

At the time, Abe was hesitant to strip Ishiba of any title as he was popular among LDP members in local regions. So when the prime minister reshuffled his Cabinet in September 2014, he appointed Ishiba as regional revitalization minister as the "second best" choice. Ishiba complied, being well aware of the importance of regional support. A compromise was made between the two LDP heavyweights, allowing them to go on side by side despite their somewhat awkward relationship.

Ishiba ended up not running in the LDP leadership race in September 2015, allowing for Abe to be re-elected without contest. As party rules back then dictated that an LDP president can be re-elected for no more than two consecutive terms, Ishiba began to explicitly show his desire to become the post-Abe party president and launched his own intraparty faction in preparation to aim for the helm of the government. This was behind his refusal to remain in the Abe Cabinet when it was reshuffled yet again in August 2016.

Prime Minister Abe, meanwhile, had successfully led his party to a sweeping victory in the House of Councillors election the previous month, allowing conservative forces in favor of constitutional revision to occupy two-thirds of the seats in both chambers of the Diet -- a necessary prerequisite to initiate constitutional amendment. LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai wasted no time to reward the party head, spearheading the move to update the party rules to extend the maximum tenure for an LDP president to three terms in a row. This move was completely beyond Ishiba's expectations.

What drove a deeper wedge into the already divided relationship between Abe and Ishiba was a difference in their opinions regarding constitutional amendment. In May 2017, Abe began advocating writing the existence of the Self-Defense Forces into the supreme law while retaining the first and second paragraphs of Article 9, which renounces war and bans Japan from possessing any war potential, respectively. This irked Ishiba, who is in favor of the LDP's 2012 draft constitutional amendment, which calls for deleting Article 9's second paragraph. "It is a defeatist attitude to say the LDP's draft constitutional revision would not pass the Diet," Ishiba said. In response, Abe complained to his aides, "Mr. Ishiba is not a conservative. He's a military geek."

Ishiba stepped up his criticism of the Abe administration following the favoritism scandals involving two school operators -- Moritomo Gakuen and the Kake Educational Institution, both in western Japan. Ishiba called for an in-depth government explanation about the scandals and openly denounced the prime minister's dissolution of the House of Representatives for a snap general election in September 2017, saying, "What is this dissolution for?"

Aides to Abe sharply reacted to Ishiba's move, saying, "The prime minister was shot from behind." A senior official of Abe's camp even dared to comment, "We will score a complete victory in the upcoming party presidential election and then leave Ishiba out in the cold."

During his speech in late August, Ishiba noted, "The LDP doesn't belong to only some people."

Amid the intensifying feud between Abe and Ishiba, a senior official of the intraparty faction led by General Council Chairman Wataru Takeshita lamented, "Things couldn't have been better than the days when Prime Minister Abe and then LDP Secretary-General Ishiba were keeping each other in check."

The campaigning period for the LDP race will officially kick off on Sept. 7, for voting on Sept. 20.

(This is the second and final part in a series)


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