National / Politics

Seiko Noda rules herself out of LDP leadership vote but mulls creating her own party faction

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Internal affairs minister Seiko Noda announced Friday that she has given up plans to run for a critical leadership election set for Sept. 20, again postponing her long-shot bid to replace Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as the nation’s first female leader.

Noda’s decision not to throw her hat into the ring for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s presidential election has set the stage for a showdown between Abe and his only challenger, former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba. Abe is widely expected to win the contest, effectively extending his premiership by another three years.

“I have been trying to be in a position to join the race, but despite all the support I’ve gained so far I’ve reached the decision to give up on my bid,” Noda told a packed news conference in Tokyo.

“I’d like to thank all the people who have stuck up for me despite my very tough situation.”

Noda said she hasn’t decided yet which candidate — Abe or Ishiba — she will support in the upcoming poll.

“That’s something I will decide after conveying my thanks to supporters in my constituency” of Gifu Prefecture, she said.

It was a deja vu moment for Noda, who in 2015 likewise sought to challenge Abe in the leadership election, only to give up after failing to win the backing of at least 20 LDP parliamentarians — a prerequisite to register candidacy for the race.

This time again securing the 20-member endorsement has proved too high a bar for Noda, who on Friday didn’t mention the number of endorsements she has gathered. The Asahi Shimbun, however, put the figure at a maximum of 12, including ex-Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada and National Public Safety Commission chairman Hachiro Okonogi.

Unlike many of her fellow LDP lawmakers, Noda has made a point of not belonging to any intraparty faction. That makes it difficult to gain support from those already under the wing of LDP heavyweights such as Finance Minister Taro Aso and LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, both of whom head their own factions.

But having been forced to forgo her bid twice, Noda appeared to have learned a lesson; In a break from her past criticism of the faction system, the 57-year-old signaled her willingness to initiate what she described as a “group of like-minded people” within the LDP going forward.

The fact she has no solid power base, Noda said, has put her and a small number of her supporters within the LDP at a significant disadvantage, inevitably “delaying” their communications and responses, she reflected.

“I have always been loosely connected” to some within the LDP, Noda said.

“But instead of just getting together rather aimlessly, I would like to set about creating a group of like-minded people with whom I can better energize the LDP and take politics in Japan to a next step,” she said.

Whether this “group” will take the form of another LDP faction remains undecided at the moment, she added.

It has long been considered unlikely that Noda would become Japan’s first female prime minister. But despite now having been thwarted twice in her aspirations she said she remains undaunted, vowing to “fulfill my roles” in laying the groundwork for a greater female presence within the still male-dominated LDP.

“If the LDP promotes the policy of empowering women or making them ‘shine,’ I think we have to prove that ourselves first,” Noda said.

“As the most senior female lawmaker within the LDP, I feel it’s my responsibility to commit myself to pioneering a situation where women, who are a key to diversity, can always declare their bids for the leadership election.”

With Noda’s withdrawal, Okonogi, who was also present at the news conference, clarified that his vote will go to Abe. Hamada said he hasn’t decided yet.

Noda was tapped for her current portfolio in a Cabinet reshuffle in August last year. The appointment of Noda, a vocal critic of Abe, was largely seen as an attempt by the prime minister to counter criticism that he only favors those whom he considers his “friends” — an allegation central to a pair of cronyism scandals that have plagued his administration.

In her recently published book titled “Mirai wo Tsukame” (“Grab the Future”), Noda detailed a list of policy pledges that she says she would implement if elected LDP president and so became prime minister.

Under the catchphrase of making Japan a country in line with “global standards,” she reportedly advocated enabling parents to take up to two years of child care leave, delaying or scrapping the national retirement age altogether, promoting telecommuting and creating legal provision for more couples to keep their surnames separate after marriage.