TOKYO -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe won his third consecutive term as the head of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) on Sept. 20, but the results of the party leadership election show that dissatisfaction with him is growing within the party.
Following his victory, the prime minister announced that he intends to pursue constitutional revision and "settlement of postwar diplomatic challenges" during his next three years in power. But the outcome of the presidential race indicated that maintaining intraparty support for his administration may become more difficult. Abe's predominance appears to be facing a turning point.
Abe told reporters after the election that he won almost 70 percent of votes and "that is my biggest strength." It was not an all-out victory for his camp, however, which aimed to completely overwhelm his opponent, former LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba.
According to pre-election media estimates, Abe was expected to win over 340 of the 405 Diet member votes, but he only received 329. This means more than 10 lawmakers who had hinted at their support for Abe actually voted for Ishiba.
Abe also failed to take as many rank-and-file party member votes as he had expected. He won about 55 percent -- far from his initial goal of 70 percent. A likely factor behind this outcome was an incident in which Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ken Saito complained publicly that a pro-Abe Diet member threatened him by telling him to resign if he kept supporting Ishiba. This "apparent bullying," as a former Cabinet member supportive of the prime minister put it, distracted some party members from supporting Abe.
The composition of party member votes indicated the voters' concerns about the general local elections and the House of Councillors race slated for next year, some observers say. "The prime minister is not seen as the face to represent the party in elections among members," said a former LDP secretary-general.
In contrast, the Ishiba camp was upbeat despite its loss. "We won the 250 votes we hoped for despite our limited resources," said a senior campaign official. "We also managed to secure more than 70 votes from Diet members, and that is significant."
Ishiba sounded confident about retaining and expanding his influence in the party. "Almost half of party members voted for me," he said, referring to the future prospects for Abe's predominance during a Tokyo Broadcasting System program on Sept. 20. "That will naturally bring about some changes."
Meanwhile, Abe plans to reshuffle his Cabinet and senior LDP posts as early as Oct. 1. Striking the right balance between rewarding supporters and making light of detractors looks to be a challenging task.
Ishiba, who won some 45 percent of votes from rank-and-file party members, told reporters that personnel matters are up to the prime minister. He nevertheless added, "Many talented people supported me," suggesting that Abe promote such lawmakers. House of Representatives member Masazumi Gotoda supported the idea, citing the large number of party member votes Ishiba attracted.
Abe wants to retain his senior aides, including Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Taro Aso, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and party Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai. The prime minister said during a program on public broadcaster NHK on Sept. 20 that he will choose people who support his policies, such as revising the Constitution.
Abe has not yet divulged the details of his personnel plan, simply telling reporters that he wants "the right people in the right positions." But expectations for promotions are growing among intraparty factions that supported Abe in his presidential bid. "Factions behind the prime minister would not tolerate if Ishiba was given preferential treatment (in personnel affairs)," said a lawmaker belonging to an intraparty faction to which Abe belongs.
Another focus is how Abe will handle "future LDP presidents" for the post-Abe era, such as LDP Chief Deputy Secretary-General Shinjiro Koizumi. Koizumi stopped short of expressing whether he would accept a promotion if offered, only disclosing to the media, "I would like to frankly express my opinions if asked by the party."
(Japanese original by Hiroyuki Tanaka, Hiroshi Odanaka, Keiko Takahashi and Nozomu Takeuchi, Political News Department)