As the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) presidential election looms next week, former party Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba is apparently frustrated over the lack of opportunities for debate sessions with rival candidate Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, as the latter is busy touring abroad during the campaigning period that effectively started on Sept. 10.
Abe has been on an official visit to Russia from the afternoon of Sept. 10 through Sept. 13, while Ishiba is on a regional tour, making a stump speech in Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture, northeast of Tokyo, on the afternoon of Sept. 10 before traveling to Kobe in western Japan the same day. On Sept. 11, Ishiba found himself delivering speeches and strolling down the streets in Kobe and the Osaka Prefecture cities of Sakai and Osaka.
At a street speech in Osaka, Ishiba explicitly displayed his frustrations, saying, "The LDP presidential race is not just for party members. Never have we had such a crucial time for us to appeal to the public about what we should do about our diplomacy and social security, but there are hardly any opportunities for me and Mr. Abe to give speeches together. We cannot reach out to the general public."
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Abe met Russian President Vladimir Putin on the evening of Sept. 10, after which their joint press conference was aired live by public broadcaster NHK, highlighting Abe's presence in his duty abroad.
Both candidates had refrained from campaigning for the LDP election for a full three days until Sept. 9 after the deadly earthquake that struck the northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido on Sept. 6, but Prime Minister Abe managed to appear on TV news time and again as he attended meetings of Cabinet ministers concerned to deal with the aftermath of the disaster. Ishiba, on the other hand, had fewer media opportunities, with a joint press conference with Abe organized by the LDP on Sept. 10 being the highlight. The Ishiba camp, which is keen to make a breakthrough in debate sessions with Abe, is apparently desperate after the campaign period was effectively shortened.
Also daunting for Ishiba is the growing support for the prime minister among LDP lawmakers in local assemblies, on top of Abe's upper hand in terms of support from LDP Diet lawmakers. "Whenever I call up a party member, they would say 'OK' (in a show of support for Ishiba), but when it comes to prefectural and municipal assembly members in my home turf, the prime minister has got tight control over them," grouched a senior official of the Ishiba camp.
Amid such adversity, Yuji Okada, an LDP member of the Kobe Municipal Assembly, posted a comment on his Facebook account saying, "I received blatant intimidation and threats from a senior official of the prime minister's office. The willing members of the Kobe Municipal Assembly and the Hyogo Prefectural Assembly have decided to support Ishiba."
Ishiba also personally lifted his own restraint on his campaign slogan of "honest and fair" politics during a street speech on Sept. 11, which he had temporarily withheld in response to accusations that the slogan constituted a personal attack on the prime minister.
"I will pledge my loyalty only to the public and will strive to address issues in a sincere, honest and fair manner," Ishiba vowed before the assembled crowd. At one venue, about 300 people turned up to listen to what Ishiba had to say, lining up for handshake and photo opportunities with him. A 71-year-old housewife from Sakai said, "The Abe administration has become arrogant. Mr. Ishiba is likeable."
The Abe camp is also stepping up telephone campaigns. "In our constituency, 99 percent of members (eligible for the LDP election) are in favor of the prime minister, while only one supports Ishiba," a senior official of the camp boasted. One secretary, however, confided, "No one would say they actually support Ishiba when we identify ourselves as Abe campaign staff" -- conveying their vigilance against Ishiba's underlying popularity.