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Liberal Democratic Party campaign: Abe and rivals home in on local concerns

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s top political goal remains constitutional revision, including changing Article 9’s war-renouncing clause. But for Liberal Democratic Party chapters across the country, priorities tend to be on local issues, especially securing financial assistance from Tokyo for all manner of social welfare and infrastructure concerns.

As next month’s LDP presidential election draws closer, Abe — who is vying for a third term — and those most likely to challenge him are touring the country in an attempt to win over as many local votes as possible.

In past party elections Diet members had more votes than local chapters. But now 405 votes each are allotted to Diet members and to local LDP representatives, giving local members — in theory — more power than they had before, when they only had 300 votes.

However, if one candidate does not win a majority after the first round of voting, a second round takes place between the top two challengers. In this scenario, Diet members would hold on to their 405 total votes but the number of ballots from local LDP representatives would be slashed to 47, one for each prefectural chapter. In the past, local members were not allowed to cast ballots in runoff elections.

Thus, over the past couple of months, Abe and expected challengers like former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba and internal affairs minister Seiko Noda have hit the campaign trail — eating local specialties, attending festivals and making speeches that address the specific concerns of local LDP chapters.

For example, the Hokkaido LDP chapter has pushed for more political and economic exchanges with the Russian-held islands off Hokkaido, even as the government makes continued calls to Moscow for the return of the islands — called the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia. The chapter also wants state backing for a Winter Olympics bid for Sapporo, likely for the 2030 Games.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership remains controversial in Hokkaido and the local chapter is now focused on securing assistance for farmers to adjust to the conditions of the trade pact, as well as further efforts to market its agricultural products to other areas of the country and overseas.

More broadly, massive public works projects are critical to local LDP members and their supporters. Three proposed projects likely to be at the top of the wish list for rural Honshu prefectures are the Ou Shinkansen line between the cities of Fukushima and Akita, passing through Yamagata Prefecture; the Uetsu Shinkansen line between the cities of Toyama and Aomori along the Sea of Japan coast; and the Sanin Shinkansen line, which would run down the Sea of Japan coast, connecting Yamaguchi, Shimane, Tottori, Hyogo and Kyoto prefectures before terminating in Osaka.

“The improvement of Niigata’s status as a transportation hub is indispensable, and the realization of the Uetsu Shinkansen project is critical to meet that goal,” Niigata Gov. Hideyo Hanazumi told the prefectural assembly in June.

Abe will have to consider Hanazumi’s wishes carefully due to his ties with secretary-general Toshihiro Nikai, a powerful ally of the prime minister. Hanazumi was the secretary for Nikai when he was transport minister.

All candidates will have to consider how to respond to the Sanin Shinkansen proposal. The idea has the support of 52 local governments in seven western prefectures.

Ishiba, who represents Tottori Prefecture, is on a Diet committee that aims to bring the project to fruition.

“We need to strengthen efforts to have the Sanin Shinkansen built, as it could play an important role in narrowing the (socio-economic) gap between Japan’s Pacific coast and the Sea of Japan region,” Tottori Mayor Yoshihiko Fukazawa said at a June meeting in Tokyo to discuss the project. The meeting was attended by a dozen Diet members, including Ishiba.

But the severe flooding in Hiroshima and Okayama prefectures in early July, which damaged numerous train lines, may have made talks about new shinkansen routes less of an LDP presidential campaign issue. When asked about the project during Diet questioning last month, Abe, who represents a district in Yamaguchi Prefecture, said there are more immediate concerns.

“(I’m) from the Sanin region. But my first desire is, rather than the shinkansen, to get the local trains in the region up and running again,” Abe said.

In Kyushu, trains are on the mind of LDP members in Nagasaki Prefecture, which will seek assurances from candidates that the Nagasaki route for the Kyushu Shinkansen line can be completed by 2022. Central government support for additional transportation links to Nagasaki’s outer islands, as well as efforts to turn Nagasaki airport into a 24-hour operation, are other key issues for local representatives.

Aging demographics and the medical needs of older voters are another focus of the campaign.

With doctors and nurses increasingly scarce outside major cities, medical evacuations by helicopter for elderly residents in isolated mountain regions or on small outer islands is a major political issue. LDP party platforms in places like Kyushu and Shikoku have promised assistance in this regard, and the candidates are likely to be asked by those chapters about their views on what the central government might do to ensure timely and affordable medivac flights.

“Basically, the LDP’s policy is that local party chapters take care of local needs,” said Koji Nakakita, a Hitotsubashi University professor and author of a 2017 book on the structure of the ruling party.

While Ishiba is considered more popular among rural LDP chapters, Nakakita noted that Abe’s ally Nikai has been aggressively pursuing the kind of infrastructure projects favored by many local chapters.

“So I don’t see a huge difference in the two candidates. In terms of farm policy, there are those who say Abe has been cold toward the farm lobby, and that Ishiba, who knows those issues well, listens more closely. But in terms of overall policy, there’s not that much difference,” Nakakita said.

Which means that whoever wins the vote is unlikely to oppose the variety of needs and requests from local LDP chapters, but merely decide which ones need to be addressed immediately after the election and which ones can wait — perhaps until the party’s next leadership vote.