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Thursday, Sep. 27, 2012

Hawkish Abe wins LDP presidency

Ex-leader comes from behind to defeat Ishiba in 108-89 runoff

Staff writer

The Liberal Democratic Party elected hawkish former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as its new president Wednesday, pinning its hopes on him to guide the party back into power in the next general election.

News photo
Back on top: Shinzo Abe addresses Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers Wednesday at party headquarters in Tokyo after beating Shigeru Ishiba in a runoff for the presidency. SATOKO KAWASAKI

The race was especially important as recent polls suggest the LDP, the largest opposition party, could eclipse the ruling Democratic Party of Japan's majority in the next Lower House election, which must be held by summer 2013. Under that scenario, Abe, whose term as party president is three years, would become the nation's next leader.

The former prime minister came from behind in a runoff to defeat ex-defense chief Shigeru Ishiba by a vote of 108-89.

But despite his victory, strong internal and public criticism has stigmatized Abe, who quit as prime minister in 2007 while suffering from ulcerative colitis, which he insists is cured now.

After the vote, Abe thanked LDP members for giving him another chance to lead the party after his abrupt exit five years ago.

"I caused a lot of trouble by quitting out of the blue . . . (but) you have given me a mission to build a new and strong LDP and to stand at the party's helm in these difficult times," he said Wednesday afternoon. "This victory does not erase the responsibility I bear from five years ago but I keep that firmly in mind and will devote myself to seizing government power with everyone."

At age 52, Abe became Japan's youngest leader in postwar history in 2006. Now, at 58, he is expected to push Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, 55, and the DPJ to dissolve the Lower House as soon as possible for a snap election.

News photo
Shigeru Ishiba

At a news conference later Wednesday, Abe said he was willing to negotiate with Noda to overcome the deadlock in the Diet. At the end of August, the LDP and several other opposition parties slapped Noda with a censure motion and refused to hold deliberations in the Diet, which recessed on Sept. 8.

"The Upper House expressed its will and Prime Minister Noda should take it seriously. But at the same time, I don't intend to reject all discussions. . . . We are not a party that puts party politics first at any cost," Abe said.

The new LDP president is intent on revising the Constitution and has vowed to protect Japanese territorial claims amid strains with neighboring China and South Korea over the sovereignty of disputed islands.

Analysts and some LDP lawmakers, however, have expressed concerns that Abe's hawkish streak could worsen the disputes.

The LDP race had five candidates but none took a first-round majority, prompting a runoff with the top two candidates — Abe and Ishiba.

A total of 498 ballots were cast in the first round of the election, with Diet members accounting for 198 and local party chapters 300.

Ishiba, backed by the local chapters, catapulted to an overwhelming first-round victory, garnering 165 votes to Abe's 87. Ishiba, however, was only able to collect 34 of the lawmakers votes while Abe won 54.

But in the runoff, Abe bounced back on the strength of his party ties, besting Ishiba 108-89 in a vote restricted to Diet members.

As the votes of local chapters are considered closer to public opinion, the LDP is likely to face criticism for ignoring the will of the people, and Abe may be forced to award an important portfolio to Ishiba to avoid intraparty heat.

After the vote, Ishiba promised to ensure that the will of the people won't be ignored in forming policies, adding that he would be willing to take any post Abe suggests.

"This was an election for the LDP and for the people. . . . And as someone who won the most votes from local chapters, it is my job to make sure that their voices are reflected regardless of my position" in the party, Ishiba said.

The campaign of Nobuteru Ishihara, the Tokyo governor's son and the party's secretary general and onetime front-runner, was derailed by verbal gaffes, including a reference comparing the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant to a complex of buildings where the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult made sarin and other lethal chemicals. Ishihara finished with 96 votes.

Former Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura, who fell ill during the campaign, collected 34 votes, while acting LDP policy chief Yoshimasa Hayashi won 27.

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