Former economic policy minister Akira Amari, a long-time aide to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, looked grim and sour facing reporters on Thursday at the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s head office in Tokyo just after Abe’s re-election to a third term as party president.
Amari, who served as director-general of Abe’s campaign team for Thursday’s election, had been asked to comment on the results.
Abe comfortably beat former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba by a vote of 553 to 254, garnering 82 percent of the 402 valid ballots cast by the LDP’s lawmakers in the Diet, who cast half of the 810 votes in the election. But the other 405 ballots cast by the LDP’s 643,681 rank-and-file members nationwide painted a starkly different picture.
The prime minister barely won, receiving only 55.3 percent of the 405 votes distributed to the party’s regional members. Ishiba won 44.7 percent.
“The result was finely balanced. Both have saved face,” Amari said.
Amari pointed out that Abe won the race by a large margin and that Ishiba put up “a decent fight” despite earlier speculation he might suffer a crushing defeat.
While campaigning, Abe’s team was reportedly aiming to beat Ishiba by “an overwhelming margin” so he would never emerge again as a political threat. But that obviously failed, and Amari admitted that Ishiba will “maintain a voice” in the nation’s politics.
Ishiba appeared upbeat and enlivened during a joint media interview after the election. He even said he would be willing to run for the LDP presidency — and thus prime minister — when Abe’s term expires or if he steps down for some reason.
“No administration will continue forever, and the president has repeatedly said this will be his last term” as LDP president, Ishiba told reporters.
“As so many people have supported my policy proposals, I will make efforts to have them reflected in the next administration,” Ishiba said.
The results also revealed that Abe isn’t nearly as popular outside Tokyo as he is in the Diet.
“Voters in my region are now tired of Abe, as more than five years have passed (since he took power in December 2012.) Scandals involving (school operators) Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Gakuen are also big factors,” said a senior Upper House member who voted for Ishiba, referring to two separate cronyism scandals that have plagued Abe since last year.
The lawmaker, who represents a rural area, spoke on condition of anonymity.
“I think there is a big gap between people in my region and Nagatacho,” said the lawmaker, referring to the political district in Tokyo that hosts the Diet and the Prime Minister’s Office.
The leaders of five of the seven Diet factions backed Abe, prompting most of their members to vote for him. This is considered the critical factor that enabled Abe to win 329 of the 402 valid ballots cast by the Diet members.
But the power plays in Nagatacho did not appear to have much affect on the LDP’s frustrated members across the nation.
Most of the rank-and-file members are registered supporters of a certain Diet member. So these members usually ask them to vote for the same candidate he or she is supporting in the presidential race.
But this time around, things were different.
In Kanagawa Prefecture, for example, 19 of its 20 Diet members voted for Abe. But only 20,901 of the prefecture’s 34,272 rank-and-file members did the same. The rest voted for Ishiba, giving him 13,371 votes.
“If you simply calculate it, the tally (for the rank-and-file votes) could be something like 19 to 1. So I was surprised to see a tally of 20,000 to 13,000,” said Shinjiro Koizumi, the only national lawmaker in Kanagawa who voted for Ishiba.
In retrospect, Koizumi said he feels that ratio is “much closer to the voices I’ve heard in my area.”
The LDP’s executives argued that many local members voted for Ishiba because earlier media reports had all predicted Abe would beat him by a landslide.
“I think voters had a sense of balance. They tried to keep (Abe) in check because there were so many media reports predicting he would win an overwhelming victory,” LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai said during a news conference on Thursday.
But the strong support for Ishiba shown by the LDP’s rank and file has cast doubt on Abe’s ability to lead campaigns for the nationwide round of unified local elections next spring, as well as the Upper House election next summer.
“To fight for the Upper House election, we are trying to show voters (the LDP) has common sense,” said the Upper House member from a rural district.