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Ex-Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba formally announces LDP leadership candidacy, pledging ‘honest and fair’ government

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

Former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba held a news conference Friday to formally announce he will run for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s presidential race, set for September, saying that he would create an “honest and fair” government if he beats Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to become prime minister.

Specifically, Ishiba said he would immediately carry out “a 100-day plan” to reform government in a bid to regain the trust of the people.

The plan would include reform of the Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs so that bureaucrats would honestly serve for the people, not politicians in power, Ishiba said.

Ishiba seems to be looking to tap frustration among rank-and-file LDP members who have been unhappy with government favoritism scandals involving school operators Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Gakuen, which plagued Abe’s administration last year.

Abe’s government set up the personnel bureau in 2014 to tightly control the appointments of hundreds of elite bureaucrats. But some experts say the arrangement has eroded the political neutrality of officials at the central government, possibly in relation to the Moritomo and Kake scandals as well.

“I want to create honest, fair, careful and humble politics,” Ishiba said.

In the scandals, government officials were suspected of favoring the two school operators, which allegedly had close ties with Abe or his wife Akie Abe.

The winner of the LDP’s party leadership race is also set to become prime minister because the LDP-Komeito ruling bloc have majorities in both the Lower and Upper Houses.

During the news conference in Tokyo, Ishiba also highlighted that Japan is facing a population crisis and an ever-widening wealth disparity between urban and rural areas, saying they are the two top priority issues he would tackle as the prime minister.

Given the rapid greying of the nation and its shrinking working population, Japan’s fiscal and welfare systems “are not sustainable if the status quo (of the government) is maintained,” Ishiba told the news conference.

To carry out drastic reforms in order to cope with those grave problems, the government needs to regain the “trust of the people,” Ishiba said.

Asked about specific policy measures, however, Ishiba didn’t go into details Friday. He only said reforms should be carried out in ways that are appropriate for each individual region and that policy measures should be boiled down for non-urban areas.

Currently five of the seven intraparty factions of the LDP have expressed their intention to support the prime minister in the race, making Abe’s re-election in the vote almost certain. The election is expected to take place on Sept. 20.

Now public attention is on how much of a margin over Ishiba Abe can secure, which is likely to decide the power balance within the party after the election. If many rank-and-file LDP members vote for Ishiba in the race, it could significantly reduce Abe’s political clout within the party.

Regarding potential revision of the Constitution, Ishiba only said “priority” should be given to certain proposals for revision. Specifically, he suggested an article should be added to give the prime minister extraordinary powers in the event of an emergency, such as a major natural disaster.

Abe maintains that the war-renouncing Article 9 of the postwar Constitution should be revised, and that this should be a focus of policy debates ahead of the presidential election.

Abe has proposed that Article 9 should be revised to formalize the legal status of the Self-Defense Forces, but some pacifist scholars and activists oppose the move and have said it could expand the legal scope for activities by Japan’s military forces.