TOKYO -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is leveraging his close connections to various industry groups in the race for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)'s top post against challenger and former party secretary-general Shigeru Ishiba.
About 400,000 of the 1.04 million rank-and-file party members with the right to cast ballots in the Sept. 20 LDP presidential election belong to occupation and interest group branches, and appealing to industry groups those members are associated with is the key to securing their votes. A senior LDP official, however, warns that industry group leaders no longer have enough influence over their members to have them vote for candidates of their choice.
One group Abe is courting is the Japan Medical Association (JMA), an influential body of medical doctors. Its newsletter, "Japan Medical News," ran an interview between Prime Minister Abe and JMA Chairman Yoshitake Yokoyari on the front page of the Sept. 5 issue, two days before the election campaign officially began.
The interview does not mention the LDP presidential election. However, "It's a message to LDP party members in the occupation to 'help out the prime minister in the party presidential election," acknowledged an individual associated with the doctors' group. "Printing an interview with the prime minister (in the newsletter) is unusual."
The JMA has a political arm called Nichiiren, but it has not laid out a policy on voting for its members in the LDP leadership race, and has left the decision up to prefectural chapters. According to a senior Nichiiren official, the only prefectural chapter backing Ishiba is that of Tottori. The candidate hails from the prefecture in western Japan.
The National Association of Postmasters and the Japan Nursing Federation have also made no clear proclamations on how their members should vote. However, their former members and current LDP legislators in the House of Councillors, Yoshifumi Tsuge and Emiko Takagai, respectively, both endorsed Abe for the LDP presidency, indicating their closeness to the prime minister.
In late August, chairmen of the political bodies of the Japan Dental Association and the Japan Construction Cooperative Combination met with Abe one after the other at the prime minister's office, and received requests from Abe to support his bid for a third term as the LDP president and thus retain his position as the prime minister of Japan.
Meanwhile on the Ishiba side, former chairman of the Central Federation of Societies of Commerce and Industry Yoshifumi Ishizawa expressed his personal support for the challenger at a Sept. 12 gathering of the Ishiba camp held in the Toyama prefectural city of Takaoka in central Japan. "It's a tough race, but Mr. Ishiba filed his candidacy with resolve. I would like to be of help," he said.
However, Ishizawa, now the chairman of the Toyama Prefectural Federation of Societies of Commerce and Industry, clarified his position, saying, "(Ishiba's) opponent is the incumbent prime minister. It's highly unlikely we can throw our support behind (Ishiba) as an organization."
In terms of resourcefulness, Ishiba's forces are no match for Abe's camp. The premier has secured over 80 percent of LDP lawmakers' votes. Still, the underdog camp pins its hopes on the possibility that the rank-and-file party members will vote for him even if the leaders of their industry groups do otherwise.
Agricultural cooperatives, meanwhile, are keeping their distance from both candidates. Central Union of Agricultural Cooperatives (JA-Zenchu) Chairman Toru Nakaya met with Prime Minister Abe and LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai at the premier's office on Sept. 6. Nikai told reporters afterward that Nakaya had told Abe, "I will support you wholeheartedly." Nakaya, however, denied this at a subsequent news conference.
Those agricultural cooperatives still harbor distrust toward Abe over his eventual promotion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement that those groups vehemently opposed, and the premier's agricultural reform policies. Support for Ishiba, who once served as agriculture minister, is also limited.
Unlike elections for public offices in which different political parties clash head-on, the LDP leadership race does not seem to have produced strong pressure on industry groups to support particular candidates. "Because both candidates are from the same party, overdoing it would antagonize everyone," a member of the Abe camp said.
(Japanese original by Yusuke Matsukura, Political News Department)