The year’s biggest political event — the race to pick the next Liberal Democratic Party president and thus the successor to Prime Minis ter Junichiro Koizumi — officially kicks off Sept. 8 for a Sept. 20 vote. Here are some questions and answers:

Who can vote in the election?

Only LDP members are eligible, including lawmakers and other ranks, as long as they are over age 18 and have paid party membership fees for two consecutive years. The LDP limits its membership to Japanese only. Nearly 1.06 million party members are eligible to vote in the upcoming poll, though their votes do not carry the same weight as those cast by the party’s Diet members.

Under the parliamentary system, the ruling party leader is almost certain to be elected prime minister because of its Diet majority.

Japan’s parliamentary system may resemble Britain’s in terms of legal structure, but the British prime minister may be more powerful because the Japanese leader must pay heed to the opinions of the ruling party.

How can public opinion be reflected in the LDP poll if only party members vote?

It is possible the election outcome will fail to precisely reflect public opinion. This is a source of major criticism, unlike the case with a direct vote.

One aspect peculiar to Japanese politics is its image of consensus-based decision-making. Candidates for party leader tend to look to fellow politicians, not the public, to form factions to gain internal power. This often leads to internal power struggles that have nothing to do with public opinion.

“Under the Japanese parliamentary system, the process to choose a good leader does not work well,” said Gakushuin University politics professor Naoto Nonaka.

The country must change its electoral system to one that better reflects the overall public view, in which candidates for party leader actively debate policy proposals and platforms, Nonaka said.

Owing much to his stubbornness, Koizumi gradually changed the LDP’s factional power politics while enjoying high public support rates. With next summer’s Upper House election in mind, LDP heavyweights now advocate a party leader who is solidly backed by the public.

Could Japan introduce a direct election for prime minister?

Koizumi considered the possibility and tasked an expert panel to look into this soon after he took office in April 2001, but discussions bogged down at the onset. Experts pointed to difficulties in practicing a direct vote while retaining the current parliamentary system under the Constitution.

Koizumi instead later came up with ways to better reflect public opinion — or at least his own — on policy: Not follow recommendations by LDP heavyweights in appointing Cabinet ministers and top party executives as well as endorsing party candidates in national elections.

Who will run in the LDP presidential poll?

Major candidates include the front-runner, Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, followed by Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki and Foreign Minister Taro Aso, according to recent public opinion polls.

Tanigaki and Aso have formally announced their candidacies.

But the as-yet undeclared Abe, a conservative hawk with constantly high popularity ratings, is widely expected to win in a landslide. Former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda, who seeks friendlier ties with China and South Korea, had been a strong rival to Abe until last month, when he decided not to run.

Why won’t they all declare their candidacy?

All three major candidates are members of Koizumi’s Cabinet. But since Tanigaki formally declared his candidacy July 27, vowing to run and to express different views on many issues from Koizumi, the finance minister has faced pressure to resign his current post.

Meanwhile, marginal candidates, including former Vice Justice Minister Taro Kono, are not in the Cabinet. That’s why they have already declared their candidacy.

Can Koizumi run again?

Koizumi’s current three-year term as LDP president expires at the end of September. According to current LDP rules, the party head can stay in office only for two consecutive terms. Koizumi is about to finish his second.

Can anyone in the LDP become a candidate?

A presidential candidate needs the endorsement of at least 20 LDP Diet lawmakers, compared with 30 in the previous election, in 2003.

Still, those who belong to small factions, including Tanigaki, who has 15 faction members, and Aso, with 11, may find it hard to gather the required number of supporters before the official Sept. 8 kickoff. Meanwhile, Abe is backed by the largest LDP faction, led by former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, which has 86 members.

How does a candidate win?

One needs to gain a majority of the total votes. If no one emerges with a majority, the top two vote-getters engage in a runoff.

The 403 LDP lawmakers in both chambers of the Diet each gets one vote, while a further 300 votes are divided up among prefectural chapters based on the number of their party members.

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