Official campaigning for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s presidential election kicked off Friday, setting in motion a two-week race widely predicted to give Prime Minister Shinzo Abe another three years in office.
However, what was supposed to be a hectic day packed with speeches and debates by candidates got off to an unusually quiet start as Abe and his only challenger, former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba, prioritized responding to the aftermath of a magnitude 6.7 quake that had jolted southern Hokkaido a day earlier.
Their planned speeches and joint appearances at a news conference have been rescheduled for Monday, following a decision by the LDP to refrain from holding any election-related event until Sunday. Their policy debate at the Japan National Press Club, slated for Saturday, is expected to be postponed until Friday next week, according to reports.
“It is only natural for the incumbent prime minister to prioritize protecting the lives and livelihood of the public,” said senior LDP lawmaker Akira Amari, who serves as director-general of the Abe campaign, to reporters soon after Abe’s candidacy was officially registered with the party. Soon after the Hokkaido quake Abe asked the campaign office to let him dedicate himself to handling the crisis, Amari said.
Experts say the earthquake is expected to work to the advantage of Abe, who can portray himself as a reliable, prompt leader by overseeing the government response to the disaster.
“Calamities tend to work in favor of those in power. The quake and the typhoon (Jebi) are no exception,” said Katsuyuki Yakushiji, a political science professor at Toyo University.
However, the quake has left his struggling rival, Ishiba, in an even tougher spot, as the three-day “truce” until Sunday means what little opportunity he had to speak in public and position himself under the media spotlight during the campaign season will be reduced further.
After overseeing disaster management issues over the weekend and attending a joint press appearance with Ishiba on Monday, Abe will soon depart for a four-day trip to Russia early next week. He is set to attend an economic forum in Vladivostok, where he is likely to make headlines and score more “bonus” points for efforts towards the nation’s diplomacy.
The prime minister has already received backing in the LDP context from five majorparty factions.
At an event commemorating the establishment of his campaign office Monday, faction leaders supporting Abe credited him with roles they claim he played in leading the LDP to a series of election victories, elevating Japan’s global presence and rebooting the economy.
There seems to be no doubt, then, that Abe will come out of the Sept. 20 election with flying colors, securing a historic third term as the LDP president. A victory will not only increase the odds of him becoming Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, but will give him more time to tackle his longtime goal of revising the postwar Constitution.
But simply winning the race is unlikely to be enough for Abe.
Abe’s real concern seems to be how effectively he can trounce Ishiba — whom he only narrowly defeated in the previous LDP leadership election in 2012 — to silence any dissent within his party and stabilize his administration after the election is over.
His biggest challenge lies in the extent to which he can outpace Ishiba in the 405 votes allocated to rank-and-file members of the LDP — which constitute half of the total 810 ballots counted for the presidential election. Another 405 will be cast by LDP parliamentarians.
After securing backing from five major factions within the LDP, “it is said Abe has garnered about 70 percent of the parliamentarian votes. If so, Abe at least has to win the same percentage of votes from rank-and-file members, too, if he wants to be assured of some stability in his post-election power base,” said Yu Uchiyama, a professor of political science at the University of Tokyo.
While ballots cast by lawmakers are mostly a result of intraparty maneuvering, “those regional votes are more of a public mandate on the current administration. So a failure to win those votes by an overwhelming majority could undermine the credibility of Abe’s administration, if not downright equate to a vote of no confidence,” the professor said.
The shortened campaign period is also helpful for the prime minister in that it will “help reduce Abe’s exposure to tough grilling” by his contender, Ishiba, and the press, working in favor of his apparent desire to avoid participating in public debates, Yakushiji said.
Since officially declaring his candidacy in the contest at the end of last month, Abe has held no news conferences to explain his policy pledges — contrasting sharply with Ishiba, who has gone out of his way to organize events almost weekly to detail his policies.
Instead, Abe has spent most of the pre-campaign period tightening his control within the party, Yakushiji pointed out, citing media reports that he has even urged some LDP lawmakers to pledge their support for him in writing.