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Saturday, Sep. 15, 2012
Same old LDP, even as it seeks a new face
As the Liberal Democratic Party kicked off its presidential race Friday, experts doubted that the largest opposition party, thrown out of power in 2009 by the Democratic Party of Japan, has really changed its style from when it ruled the nation for more than five decades almost without interruption.
Whether the leader who replaces Sadakazu Tanigaki at the helm will be able to hammer out a fresh public image for the LDP has been questioned as well, even though the new party chief could become the next prime minister if the LDP-led opposition wins the next Lower House election.
"You can tell nothing has changed if you look at the lineup," said Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo.
The candidates are all blue-blood veteran lawmakers, including party Secretary General Nobuteru Ishihara, 55, former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba, 55, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, 57, former Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura, 67, and Upper House member Yoshimasa Hayashi, 51.
"It's disappointing that they are all hereditary politicians," Nakano said.
Blue-blood politicians are common in the LDP because three key elements to win an election — "jiban" (support), "kanban" (name) and "kaban" (money) — are all taken for granted and give them the edge.
The most well-known candidate may be Ishihara, thanks to his father, Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, an outspoken hawk. Nakano said Ishihara, who is backed by party heavyweights, and Ishiba who is popular at the local level, are probably the strongest candidates among the five.
Ishihara said at a news conference Tuesday that if elected he would maintain the policies under the current executive members. This means pursuing social security and tax reforms that the LDP and New Komeito agreed to with the DPJ, including the bill they collectively passed to raise the consumption tax to 10 percent by 2015.
Former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and another heavyweight, Makoto Koga, head of an intraparty faction Tanigaki belongs to, opted for Ishihara and refused to offer support to Tanigaki, forcing him to abandon his re-election bid.
Former construction minister Taku Yamasaki and former head of the Upper House caucus Mikio Aoki have also declared their support for Ishihara.
But some LDP members remain critical of him because he didn't defer to Tanigaki, his immediate boss in the executive committee.
Nakano of Sophia University said it "might become disadvantageous for Ishihara" to win votes from some party ranks.
In fact, former Prime Minister Taro Aso, who expressed support for Abe on Thursday, said: "Tanigaki appointed Ishihara as secretary general. It's unthinkable that (Ishihara) will run by forcing Tanigaki out of the race."
Meanwhile Ishiba, an expert on security issues, is believed to have a leg up in winning votes from party members in local chapters, even though he doesn't belong to any of the party's factions.
The candidates will be competing for 499 votes — 199 allocated to Diet members and 300 to local LDP chapters.
Ishiba also seems to be more popular with the public compared with the other candidates, according to a recent poll conducted by the Asahi Shimbun. He was backed by 23 percent of 1,006 respondents, while 19 percent supported Ishihara and 13 percent Abe.
Abe, who shares similar views on security and diplomatic issues with Ishiba, was able to gather 60 LDP members to his study sessions on economic growth launched Sept. 5, but it is uncertain how much support he can get as he is still facing criticism for his sudden resignation a year after he was appointed prime minister in 2006, citing health problems.
"I'm very healthy now," Abe emphasized Wednesday when he announced his candidacy for the Sept. 26 election. He said he has recovered from ulcerative colitis, an intractable disease he had been suffering from for years, thanks to "new medicine."
One of his supporters, Yoshitaka Shindo, who also backed him in 2006, said he has worked alongside the ex-prime minister in study groups and can tell Abe is healthy. "So there was no need to ask" about Abe's health when he decided to run, Shindo told The Japan Times.
However, Shindo said he "felt sorry" when Abe stepped down in 2007.
"The responsibility of the prime minister is huge and it's the most solitary job. We couldn't fully support him back then."
Shindo belongs to a faction headed by former Finance Minister Fukushiro Nukaga, who will support Ishihara, but he said he has decided to back Abe again.
Shindo, one of the 150 people to visit the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea in August, argues it is important for Japan to protect the land, sea and people, and Abe shares these same values.
"To rebuild the country, I think we should establish a conservative government. In that aspect, Abe and I have a lot in common," he said.
While Abe is seeking cooperation with Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party) launched by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto on a policy basis, his candidacy is likely to split the party's biggest faction, headed by Machimura, because both are running for the top LDP post.
Machimura repeatedly asked Abe to refrain from running, but Abe wouldn't give in.
Nakano said the LDP has positioned itself in a way that it could be able to retake power just by waiting for the DPJ to fail. But the party's true colors, despite years of tribulations, remain the same, he said.
"The new leader is not likely to change the old LDP," he said.