TOKYO -- The campaigning for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) presidential election entered into a new phase on Sept. 10 as incumbent Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and opponent Shigeru Ishiba, a former LDP secretary-general, each made speeches and held a joint press conference at party headquarters here to discuss policy.
But both Abe, 63, and Ishiba, 61, stopped short of clashing head-on and took a wait-and-see attitude toward one another out of concern that going for their opponent too strongly would lead to negative repercussions for their respective campaigns.
Prime Minister Abe announced his intention in August to submit a constitutional revision draft during the next extraordinary session of the Diet. The proposed change would make reference to the existence of the Self-Defense Forces in Article 9, while maintaining paragraphs 1 and 2, which renounce war and prohibit Japan from possessing war potential. On Sept. 10, Abe reiterated his stance to seek such changes to the supreme law if he won a third term as the leader of the ruling party, which would in turn allow him to continue in his position as prime minister. "This is my last presidential election. I want to achieve (constitutional revision) in the next three years (as party chief)," Abe told reporters.
In contrast, Natsuo Yamaguchi, leader of the Komeito party that is a member of the ruling coalition with the LDP, suggested that the premier slow down. Yamaguchi told reporters in the city of Tianjin in central China on Sept. 8, "The priority is to lay the groundwork for the (Diet's) commissions on the Constitution to proceed with debate on constitutional changes." Ishiba has also repeated on many occasions that there is no need to rush to make the revisions.
It was due in part to this situation that Abe backtracked slightly on Sept. 10, saying that the LDP leader must set a goal, but "it does not mean that the goal must absolutely be met." Abe also said he would like the Komeito and as many political parties as possible to agree on the LDP's constitutional revision plan. This remark appears to be a reflection of Ishiba's earlier statement that "careful discussions with other parties" are needed for constitutional changes.
As for the "Abenomics" economic policy package, the prime minister appeared aware of criticism that his programs do not necessarily benefit regional economies, and thus said in his latest speech that more than one jobseeker exists for each job available in all of the nation's 47 prefectures. "Finally, the warm wind of economic recovery is blowing into regional areas," Abe said, emphasizing the need to continue his current policies.
Improving economic figures is one of the main factors behind LDP lawmakers and party members' rallying behind Abe. Even Ishiba said in his speech on Sept. 10 that the dynamic monetary easing policy made the yen less expensive, lowered interest rates and allowed for major corporations to make historic profits.
"Those results are wonderful," Ishiba pointed out. In fact, Ishiba's main economic policy of promoting the growth of small and medium-sized companies and increasing personal income through regional revitalization is not the denial of, but rather a revision to, Abenomics.
In response, a Diet member who supports Abe said, "Reviving local economies is important for sure. But Ishiba lacks a vision about how to realize that goal. His policy is not that different from that of the prime minister."
After the joint speeches and press conference, Abe left for Vladivostok for a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, effectively putting the LDP presidential campaign on hold again until his return to Japan on Sept. 13.
Ishiba, meanwhile, intensified his criticism of Abenomics during a speech at a rally in the city of Mito, in the eastern prefecture of Ibaraki, questioning if making major companies and Tokyo rich will result in more wealth for local communities. "What we need to do now isn't to increase consumer prices," he said, attacking Abe's policy of gradually raising prices to improve the economic performance of the country as a whole.
Meanwhile, Ishiba replaced his signature slogan of "honest, fair" politics with "revitalizing regions, revitalizing Japan" at a meeting of Ishiba supporters at LDP headquarters on Sept. 10.
Ishiba did not attack Abe directly during the joint press conference when reporters asked questions about the alleged favoritism scandals involving school operators Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Educational Institution and the Abe couple. The "honest, fair" slogan was seen as criticism against these favoritism cases.
The message initially reflected Ishiba's intention of differentiating himself from Abe, but he effectively retracted this platform, even before the election campaign officially started on Sept. 7, amid criticism from House of Councillors members of the Takeshita faction supportive of Ishiba's campaign.
Ishiba pledged during the press conference to implement a 100-day plan for restoring the public's trust in politics and the administration. He nevertheless did not go as far as mentioning reforming the Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs, which is the core entity enabling the Abe administration to control bureaucrats. He simply made an indirect reference to the current personnel arrangement, saying that bureaucrats do not work for the public if they falter under the will of politicians.
Meanwhile, in his policy speech, the prime minister maintained a low-key attitude, saying that he has a long way to go toward character maturity. "I want to maintain modesty in running the administration, by accepting various criticisms earnestly and changing what I need to change, as I face a new challenge in the next term," he said. This reflects his realization that not all of his supporters in the election are 100 percent behind him.
Nevertheless, Abe indicated his confidence in the way his administration has implemented policies on the initiative of the prime minister's office since he came to power for the second time in late 2012. "When ministries and agencies had the right to reshuffle personnel, bureaucrats often did not follow politicians, even when a new administration was born," Abe pointed out at the joint news conference. "To resolve this problem, politicians showing leadership was the right move," said Abe.
The prime minister then praised Ishiba as an "excellent personality capable of leading Japan," and avoided a face-off over the relationship between politicians and bureaucrats after Ishiba suggested loosening politicians' grip on officials.
"His method of setting goals and charging toward them no matter what is like Oda Nobunaga," said Ishiba, in an apparent attempt to strike back at Abe, likening the prime minister to the powerful 16th century warlord who almost conquered Japan, but was killed by an underling who betrayed him. "I don't think that passing laws and budgets alone is good enough. That's where I am different from the prime minister."
(Japanese original by Shinya Hamanaka and Hiroshi Odanaka, Political News Department)