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Saturday, Sept. 9, 2006

Issues no factor in LDP election

Popularity outranks substance in ruling party, expert says

Staff writer

The Liberal Democratic Party presidential election officially kicked off Friday with three candidates vying for the job, but it doesn't look like party members are going to vote according to their platforms.

News photo
The Three candidates in the Liberal Democratic Party's presidential race (from left to right) -- Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, Foreign Minister Taro Aso and Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki -- are shown at an LDP regional convention in Nagoya on Tuesday. KYODO PHOTO

Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, Foreign Minister Taro Aso and Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki are all debating the issues, but observers say Abe will win and go on to become prime minister.

"One distinguishing feature of this presidential election is that Abe was chosen (the winner) very early on," said Hideo Otake, a professor of political science at Kyoto University.

"The policies don't matter anyway," Otake said. "The LDP members are not going to choose their president over their policies. They are looking at who is the most popular among the general public in order to win the next general election."

"The other two candidates are thinking beyond Abe's (term as leader) to make sure that their faces are recognized by the public for the next presidential election," he added.

One telling sign is that Aso and Tanigaki each published campaign booklets with more than 20 pages outlining their positions. Abe, on the other hand, handed out a two-page leaflet.

"Abe expects to win and I think he is trying to avoid being tied down by campaign pledges," Otake said. "Anyone wants to be elected without making any promises because that ties you down later on."

Many of their positions are quite similar.

Abe, Aso and Tanigaki may have used different words and phrases to explain their stances on foreign policy, but all three basically have the same concept -- to continue to strengthen Japan's key alliance with the United States while strengthening ties with neighbors in Asia, including China and South Korea.

Some of their few differences, however, can be found in economic policy.

Abe and Aso are hesitant to give specifics about increasing taxes, but Tanigaki, the finance minister, has been clear from the start -- he wants to raise the consumption tax to as high as 10 percent.

Otake said Tanigaki's 10-percent hike is realistic and is an extension of Koizumi's idea of getting taxpayers to pay more into the public coffers.

"That is a daring move," Otake said. "But Tanigaki has made a sound argument and is facing (Japan's) financial affairs straight on."

However, the political science professor said the reason he is speaking so plainly about such an unpopular issue because he thinks he has nothing to lose.

"It is a statement that is surely to be a disadvantage in the presidential election, which also supports (the idea) that (Tanigaki) doesn't believe he'll win," he said.

Aso's "soft-landing" approach, as Otake calls it, is to have a stronger economy that will lead to higher revenue from taxes.

Abe's position on what to do about the national debt has been vague, and he simply avoids talking about tax increases altogether.

Instead, he has been focusing on the economic disparity issue, saying that society has to give a second chance to people who have failed in their careers or businesses.

Otake says Abe doesn't know very much about economic issues but will somehow get by without understanding them.

"No worries for Abe," he said, with a hint of sarcasm in his voice. "He just has to follow what Koizumi did and appoint an expert -- and leave everything up to that person."

The three candidates all want the Constitution, drafted by the Allied Occupation, to be discussed.

The LDP's position on the charter is that it must be changed. Abe openly backs that position and says Japan needs to completely revise the Constitution, whereas Aso and Tanigaki have only gone as far as saying there needs to be national debate on revising the existing document.

As for collective defense, none agree on whether to change the wording or simply the interpretation of the Constitution so that Japan can defend an ally under attack. Under the current interpretation, Japan is only allowed to passively assist an ally.

Abe has said Japan may have to consider changing the government's interpretation of the supreme code to exercise the right to collective defense.

Aso agrees. But Tanigaki thinks it should be revised because simply changing the government's interpretation is only a fast and dangerous solution.

Educational reform is another big issue for the next administration. A bill is being carried over from the last Diet session that will make changes to the Fundamental Law of Education, which has not been revised since its enactment in 1947.

On educational reform, Abe says that he wants to implement a 100-year plan to revitalize education. He wants everyone to have better access to higher education, a program to strengthen basic academic skills, and an evaluation system for schools and teachers.

Tanigaki also wants to improve the basics of education, saying the nation needs a program that focuses on using drills in such areas as kanji characters and the multiplication table.

Aso's plans for education include having children start their first year of compulsory education earlier, at 4 or 5 years old, rather than at 6.

The biggest foreign policy issue for the new prime minister will be Japan's relationship with China and South Korea.

Koizumi's contentious annual visits to Yasukuni Shrine, where 14 Class-A war criminals are enshrined along with the war dead, have damaged diplomatic ties with the two neighboring countries.

Again, Tanigaki is the only candidate who has stated a clear position on shrine visits. If he becomes prime minister, he will not visit Yasukuni.

Aso issued a report proposing that the Shrinto shrine be stripped of its religious status so that everyone can visit -- including the emperor. He did not, however, advocate the removal of the war criminals, which reportedly played a role in upsetting Emperor Hirohito so much that he stopped visiting the Shinto shrine.

Abe has avoided all questions on the issue but has said in the past that he supports Koizumi's visits.

Both Abe and Aso have also said that it is not an issue to be debated during the party election.

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