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Whether Abe can score landslide victory in LDP leadership race remains unclear

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, right, inspects farmland where a drone is used to spray agricultural chemicals in the city of Niigata on Sept. 5, 2018. (Pool photo)

TOKYO -- Doubts remain as to whether Prime Minister Shinzo Abe can score an overwhelming victory against his rival Shigeru Ishiba in the leadership election of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) as rank-and-file members fear that the public is critical of favoritism scandals involving the prime minister.

Abe is likely to win more votes from rank-and-file party members in the Sept. 20 LDP leadership election than Ishiba, former secretary-general of the party.

The 63-year-old prime minister is aiming to garner at least 70 percent of votes allocated to local chapters in an effort to bolster his power base after the election.

A senior member of an intraparty faction led by former party secretary-general and ex-chief Cabinet secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda, of which Abe is a member, said, "We can get more than 60 percent. We'd like to strive to win more votes."

Legislators supporting Abe fear that if he cannot get solid support from rank-and-file members of the party, it could spark concerns that the prime minister cannot be the LDP's "face" in elections next year.

Former economic revitalization minister Akira Amari, who serves as secretary-general of Abe's campaign headquarters, told reporters after a meeting, "Since the candidates will fiercely vie for votes from rank-and-file members, we reconfirmed that there's no oversight in our efforts."

Abe's campaign staff will step up efforts to phone party members across the country to ask them to vote for the prime minister in the election.

In a 2012 party leadership race, Ishiba garnered more votes from rank-and-file members than Abe, but Abe won the election after garnering more support from LDP Diet legislators than Ishiba in the run-off. However, many of the LDP's local chapters are of the view that the situation for the upcoming election, in which the prime minister is seeking re-election, is completely different from the 2012 race.

A high-ranking member of the party's Hiroshima prefectural chapter said, "In 2012, there were almost no expectations placed on the prime minister."

However, Takashi Nekota, acting head of the LDP Gifu Prefecture chapter, explained, "The prime minister has made achievements in economic and other policies," adding that the upcoming presidential election "is a confidence vote" for the prime minister.

Yoichi Suzuki, deputy chief of the Akita Prefecture chapter, said there is "no need to replace the party president now."

Ishiba, who lags behind Abe in gaining support from LDP legislators, has been making efforts to make up for that by trying to garner more votes from rank-and-file members of the party. Even though Ishiba is forecasted to gain only about 30 percent of votes from ordinary party members, a senior member of his intraparty faction expressed confidence saying, "He can get at least 50 percent."

Ishiba is trying to make up for a shortage of LDP Diet legislators supporting his campaign by proactively sending messages to the public through his media exposure.

Ishiba emphasizes that he is pursuing "honest" and "fair" politics, with the favoritism scandals in mind, in a bid to highlight differences between his political stance and that of the prime minister. Ishiba has been criticized by legislators supporting Abe for being just like an opposition party legislator.

However, LDP local chapters take a different view. A senior member of one prefectural chapter who believes the prime minister has the upper hand over Ishiba expressed concerns that the favoritism scandals involving two school operators -- Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Educational Institution -- "are having a lasting effect."

Satoshi Ninoyu, head of the Kyoto chapter, said, "Mr. Ishiba should boldly confront the prime minister. There must be numerous members of the general public who want to complain to the prime minister."

A senior member of a local chapter in the Shikoku region in western Japan expressed displeasure at some aides of the prime minister who have threatened to give legislators in the Ishiba camp unfavorable treatment in appointments saying, "There are obviously numerous members of the party who are sick and tired of the prime ministerial camp's efforts to crush Ishiba."

Some senior members of LDP local chapters have expressed concern that rank-and-file members are less interested in the presidential race.

A senior member of a chapter in the central Japan region of Tokai said ordinary party members "don't seem to be interested as observations are prevalent that the prime minister will certainly win," expressing concerns that voter turnout may be low.

A senior official of a chapter in the Hokuriku region along the Sea of Japan coast in central Honshu said more legislators should run in the race.

"I wanted Policy Research Council Chairman Fumio Kishida and Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Seiko Noda to throw their hats in the ring for the race and broaden the choices for ordinary party members," the official said. "It's not desirable for the same person to continue to lead the party."

(Japanese original by Keiko Takahashi, Political News Department)

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