National / Politics

Shigeru Ishiba to announce candidacy for LDP presidential race as party factions line up behind Abe

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

Former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba, the main intraparty foe of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, indicated he will formally announce Friday his intention to run in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s presidential race next month.

Ishiba announced his plan Thursday during a regular meeting of his 20-member LDP faction.

“Tomorrow I want to express my aspirations for the presidential election,” Ishiba told faction members.

The LDP race will effectively determine who will sit as prime minister because the LDP-Komeito coalition has a majority in both houses of the Diet.

With that in mind, the nation should be given an opportunity to hear the policies of each candidate, Ishiba emphasized.

During a meeting in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, the same day, Wataru Takeshita, who heads the LDP’s third-largest intraparty faction, said it will not endorse a specific candidate for the presidential race, according to media reports.

Executives of the faction, formally known as Heisei Kenkyu Kai, had been trying to keep the group united ahead of the race, but decided Wednesday to give up that pursuit.

A majority of Lower House members belonging to the faction will likely support Abe, while the 21 Upper House members support Ishiba, according to two executives of the faction who spoke with The Japan Times on Wednesday. The election is expected to be held on Sept. 20.

Five of the LDP’s seven intraparty factions have now decided to back the prime minister in the race, making Abe’s re-election almost certain.

With that, the focus of the campaign is no longer whether or not Abe can win a third term as party president, but by how much, with his margin of victory potentially determining how much political clout he has within the party going forward.

Major factions led by former Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda, Finance Minister Taro Aso, LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai and LDP policy chief Fumio Kishida have all expressed their support for Abe in the upcoming race.

The two rebel forces are Ishiba’s own 20-member faction and the 21 Upper House members of the Takeshita faction, whose chief reportedly prefers Ishiba as well.

Ishiba and Takeshita have emphasized that they want to place more importance on fiscal reconstruction in comparison to Abe’s administration.

Takeshita is a half brother of late Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita, who introduced the unpopular consumption tax in 1989, which he believed would be a key revenue source for the government to cover snowballing social security expenditures amid the country’s rapidly aging society.

Abe, in contrast, has twice postponed planned consumption tax hikes and has increased government debt under the Bank of Japan’s ultra-loose monetary policy. The consumption tax and fiscal reconstruction is likely to be a key topic of policy debates between Abe and Ishiba.

Meanwhile, Takeshita’s failure to keep Heisei Kenkyu Kai united will considerably weaken the political clout of his group.

The 21 Upper House members had tried to persuade pro-Abe Lower House members to vote for Ishiba, but their efforts fell short.

“A majority of Lower House members are supporting the prime minister, and the Upper House members have left the matter entirely to Mr. (Hiromi) Yoshida, which means they will vote for Ishiba,” Taimei Yamaguchi, the faction’s director-general, said after the meeting.

Yoshida is secretary-general of the LDP’s Upper House caucus and a key pro-Ishiba member of the faction.

“Some members have their own situations, and we accept them,” said Yamaguchi, suggesting the faction will not take any punitive actions against its Lower House members for supporting Abe.

On June 13, Yamaguchi himself publicly declared that he hoped Abe would win the presidential election.

Mikio Aoki, a retired politician and former key member of Heisei Kenkyu Kai, had pressured faction members to collectively support Ishiba and the 21 Upper House members are expected to follow his guidance in the September vote.

LDP factions were the key powerful players in Japanese politics until the mid-1990s. The head of a faction provided members with ample political funding and had them collectively follow directions on which candidate to support as party leader.

But the power of faction bosses was drastically weakened with the revision of the Political Funds Control Law and electoral reforms in the mid-1990s, a move that greatly increased the influence of the LDP president.

This change in the balance of power within the LDP has greatly helped Abe maintain his political clout, experts say.