The campaign for the Sept. 20 presidential election of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has kicked off as the government is struggling to cope with damage caused by the massive earthquake that devastated the northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and former LDP Secretary General Shigeru Ishiba filed their candidacies and are set to face off in a two-horse race.
The premier, who serves at the helm of the government, must lead rescue and recovery efforts for the quake. The party decided to suspend campaign activities for three days until Sept. 9 following the disaster.
The candidates' speeches and joint press conference, scheduled for Sept. 7, were postponed until the morning of Sept. 10. That day will be the effective start of campaigning, but the prime minister will begin his visit of the Russian far eastern city of Vladivostok from the afternoon, and no debate between the two contenders will take place until Sept. 14.
It is only natural that responding to the quake disaster comes first, and even the LDP presidential race has to give way to the situation.
However, we must also remember that the internal affair of selecting a political party leader is also about choosing the next prime minister.
Moreover, this is the first election in six years in which more than one candidate is taking part, and an important opportunity to review the performance of Prime Minister Abe over the past five years and nine months. If the premier wins a third term, he can remain in power for three more years.
Speeches by candidates to explain their policies and visions are important, but they alone may end up mere political propaganda. Debate by candidates is an opportunity not only for party members but also for the wider public to judge who is more suitable to serve as the prime minister.
The length of the campaigning will become less than usual because of the three-day suspension. That should be compensated by holding more debates between the candidates and improving the quality of campaigning.
The premier has garnered the support of more than 80 percent of LDP Diet members who will cast votes in the race, and he is seen to be leading in the competition for the votes of party members.
Ishiba is trying to attract support from local party members critical of Abe by waging debate against the prime minister, and some people in his camp have called for delaying the voting date.
The prime minister's team calculates that it can demonstrate his performance in responding to disasters even while campaigning for the election is suspended. "Showing his all-out efforts to deal with the disaster is the best way of campaigning," someone related to the premier's camp was quoted as saying.
If the thinking behind this stance is to shorten the campaign period and maintain the lead to the finish line, isn't it rather small-minded?
There are a plenty of issues we want the candidates to discuss, such as preparedness for natural disasters that are occurring one after another, adapting social security systems to the declining population, and the direction of foreign and national security policies.