The rules of the game are changing in Tokyo’s Nagata-cho, the longtime epicenter of Japanese politics.
The ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s presidential election campaign, which will almost certainly decide the next prime minister, has revealed how drastically the LDP’s power structure has changed in recent times, observers said.
LDP presidential elections were once deadly power struggles between the political heavyweights who headed powerful intraparty factions, backed by dozens of their loyal followers, all built upon a strict seniority system.
But this time five candidates, including junior party members with little political experience and influence, rushed to throw their hats into the ring — a radical change from LDP presidential elections of the past.
The main motivation of the candidates is to draw media attention to themselves and the party and thereby boost the chances of the LDP-New Komeito ruling coalition winning the next Lower House election, which is expected to take place as early as next month, experts said.
“The race this time looks more like a show. I suspect the resignation of Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda itself may have been an attempt to shine the spotlight on the LDP before a (Lower House) election,” said Masaki Taniguchi, an associate professor of politics at the University of Tokyo.
Tetsuo Suzuki, a veteran TV reporter and the news production bureau chief of Nippon BS Broadcasting Corp., agreed.
“Their scenario is to monopolize media attention by fielding five candidates. They then want to rush to a general election (in the Lower House),” said Suzuki, who wrote a book about the media campaigns crafted by the spin doctors for Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
Suzuki pointed out that the LDP is probably trying to re-create the dramatic success of the 2005 Lower House election, when Koizumi’s skillful media tactics helped lead the LDP to a landslide victory.
“But this time, both voters and the media have cooled off a bit. The media now have started thinking they were manipulated” by media-savvy politicians in 2005, Suzuki said.
Koizumi dissolved the Lower House in August 2005 and called a snap general election after his postal privatization plan was voted down in the Upper House by anti-Koizumi lawmakers, including some in his own party.
Koizumi labeled all the LDP lawmakers who voted against postal privatization as “antireform” lawmakers and fielded a fresh and often popular candidate in every antireformer’s home district in a bid to eliminate them from the Diet.
At the time, TV shows gave massive coverage to battles between the “proreform” and “antireform” candidates, which consequently helped the LDP win its historic victory in the Lower House election.
“The media were tricked perfectly by Koizumi,” Suzuki said. “But this time, media people, reflecting on their own behavior last time, are critical of the presidential election.”
Indeed, most of the commentators on TV news programs or gossip shows are critical of the LDP race and often describe it as a “farce.” Many of them also point out that the presidential election is merely “an advertisement campaign” for the party before the looming Lower House election.
“It’s clear each (media) firm is covering the (presidential) election with lessons they learned from 2005,” Taniguchi of the University of Tokyo said.
Suzuki also pointed out that in 2005, many TV viewers were fascinated by the political drama of the Lower House election campaign because candidates were clearly labeled as either “good” or “bad” politicians.
But this time, there is no such distinction among the LDP candidates, because none of the five are being aggressive in policy debates, he said.
In the elections before the 2000s, only veteran LDP lawmakers who were faction heads were considered qualified to run for LDP president and prime minister.
Candidates would also have been criticized as too inexperienced and immature unless they had served in at least one of the LDP’s top three executive posts — secretary general, general council chairman or policy research council chairman — and held a key Cabinet post, such as finance minister or foreign minister.
However, none of the five in the current race, with the exception of Taro Aso, are faction bosses. Even Aso, widely considered the front-runner, leads only a minor faction of 20 lawmakers.
Of the remaining four candidates — economic and fiscal policy minister Kaoru Yosano, former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba, former Defense Minister Yuriko Koike and former land minister Nobuteru Ishihara — none has served as a key minister or secretary general, which is No. 2 post after president.
Taniguchi pointed out that the political landscape has been changed by the emergence of the Democratic Party of Japan as the major opposition force, as well as by the growing influence of TV news shows.
Previously, LDP members chose their president by an election based on intraparty power games, with little consideration given to the reactions of general voters.
“Before around 2000, few people seriously believed an opposition party could take power,” Taniguchi said.
But now, one of the LDP’s top priorities is to survive general elections by installing a party president who can serve as a TV spokesman and woo voters.
Taniguchi said such an administration relying on the transient sentiment of voters can be unstable, as was the case with Shinzo Abe, who stepped down as prime minister less than a year after he took office.