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Editorial: Japan ruling party leadership race turns into factional power game

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) decided on Sept. 1 the date and method for electing the next party president to succeed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who announced his intention to step down late last week.

    The party certainly needs to scramble to pick its next leader -- and thus Japan's next prime minister -- as the government cannot afford to waste any time as it deals with the coronavirus crisis.

    However, what is evident even before the party leadership race kicks off is the emphasis on the interests of the LDP's intra-party factions. The jockeying for position and support affected the party's decision over whether rank-and-file members would get to vote in the leadership contest. This seems like the reverse of how things ought to be.

    Figures including Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, LDP Policy Research Council Chairman Fumio Kishida, and former party secretary-general Shigeru Ishiba have suggested they intend to run for the party leadership.

    LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai made the first move in the factional shuffle by quickly revealing his plan to rally around Suga, with his faction deciding to do the same. As if to avoid getting left behind, various LDP factions are holding meetings over the race.

    Nowadays, many LDP factions find themselves without strong potential candidates to lead the party. Because of this, many of the groups prioritize tactical moves in a bid to become the core faction behind the successful leadership hopeful, so they can secure key positions after a party presidential election. That certainly also appears to be the case this time around.

    Nikai, in his capacity as LDP secretary-general, called to have LDP Diet members and prefectural party chapter executives vote to decide on the next party leader without calling a vote by rank-and-file members. The LDP has now agreed to do so and the vote will take place on Sept. 14 during a meeting of LDP members of both chambers of the Diet. It was argued that a vote by regular party members would take too long.

    But is time the sole reason? Ishiba garnered numerous ballots from ordinary LDP members in both the 2012 and 2018 party presidential polls. It is only natural for some people to speculate that the party is skipping a regular member vote to put Ishiba at a disadvantage.

    Both Ishiba and Kishida called for holding a rank-and-file vote -- a sentiment echoed by junior LDP legislators and regional party organizations. The tug-of-war over the voting method itself represented factional strife.

    The LDP has heretofore raised the ratio of rank-and-file member votes apparently because it gives the party a chance to listen to the voice of the public at large.

    The coming party leader election is an essential opportunity for the LDP to wind up the prolonged Abe administration. Another major issue will be how to reorganize the government's coronavirus response, which has been lagging. It is all the more necessary to reflect the opinions of local areas that are familiar with what is happening on the front lines.

    Precisely because the nation is in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, the LDP is urged to implement a more open presidential race, instead of making adjustments in the interests of party factions. That way, the next prime minister will better be able to gain public confidence.

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