The Liberal Democratic Party officially decided Tuesday to bypass votes from rank-and-file members in the race to elect a new party leader, defying pushback from some lawmakers that the process belittles party supporters and is an apparent attempt to sabotage some candidates.
The party’s general council, the highest permanent decision-making body, unanimously approved moving forward the leadership election to replace Prime Minister Shinzo Abe using an approach typically applied in an emergency.
With this method, the race will be decided by whoever wins the majority of 535 ballots from among 394 Diet members and 141 representatives from across the country's 47 prefectures. The process eviscerates any influence from eligible non-Diet members, who would have equal power, with their own 394 votes, if the leadership election were to be conducted according to the procedure for general circumstances.
The strong-arm tactics by the party’s top leadership raise a fundamental question over the role of rank-and-file members, and could possibly inflame criticism that the party is only interested in faction-based politics.
General Council Chairman Shunichi Suzuki told reporters after the meeting that many attendees had agreed the party had no choice but to adopt the emergency procedure, citing pressing issues such as the economy and crisis response, as well as Abe’s health condition.
Abe abruptly announced his intent to resign Friday citing his chronic illness, but said he would remain in power until a successor was chosen.
If the election were to take place by counting rank-and-file members, Suzuki said the entire process, including preparation, would take two months. He explained that the process was time- consuming because the party would need to ascertain who is eligible to vote among rank-and-file members. A rank-and-file member vote has been skipped in past leadership elections if the LDP chief steps down before their term expires.
“Some took the view that not knowing the next administration for the next two months, even if Abe said he would do his best to be in power in the meantime, would make him shoulder a burden and isn’t necessarily a good thing,” Suzuki said.
Downsizing rank-and-file votes puts Shigeru Ishiba, one of the candidates and a former defense minister, at a severe disadvantage. He is popular with the rank-and-file and the general public but is disdained by many in his party for his unabashed criticism of Abe. Some critics speculate the party is rigging the election to make it harder for Ishiba to earn votes.
Ishiba expressed displeasure with the decision Tuesday afternoon.
“I don’t understand why it has to be so urgent,” he said on Nippon Television’s "Miyaneya" daytime show. “Prime Minister Abe said he would work to the best of his abilities until the next prime minister is elected. The government is functioning so there’s no political vacuum. The Diet is closed and … there’s no fear that a cluster (of novel coronavirus patients) would be generated at a polling place, since votes are mailed in.”
Later Tuesday, he formally announced he would run in the leadership election. At a news conference, he said the LDP should be a party that “carries out policies based on strong trust and gains understanding and empathy from a wide population.”
Both Ishiba and Fumio Kishida, another candidate and the party’s policy council chief, have advocated for rank-and-file votes to be counted.
On Monday, over a third of LDP lawmakers — 145, or nearly 37 percent — submitted a petition to Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai urging that rank-and-file votes be included in the election. Nikai was tasked with deciding the election’s format following Abe’s resignation announcement.
At a news conference before the general council meeting, Nikai justified skipping rank-and-file votes, saying that the party couldn’t condone creating a political vacuum in the middle of the pandemic and needed to elect Abe’s successor “as soon as possible.”
“I think making the decision swiftly is most important,” he said. “The best-case scenario is (holding a party convention and) listening to rank-and-file members’ opinions. But I made a judgment that choosing this way was important, after considering whether it’s possible and appropriate.”
With his fellow lawmakers standing behind, Kishida officially declared his candidacy Tuesday afternoon, saying he was “determined to work with his utmost strength for the people and for the country.”
“We need cooperation from the people to face various challenges in these times,” Kishida said at a news conference. “With this in mind, I hope to become a leader who is able to bring out cooperation from the people. To achieve that, I think trust in politics is most important, and the ability to listen to people’s voice is what’s needed in politics.”
Meanwhile, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga is slated to formally declare his candidacy for the LDP leadership position Wednesday.
The odds are tilting in favor of the 71-year-old Akita Prefecture native. So far, the top government spokesman is expected to be supported by the party’s largest faction, with 98 members, led by former Secretary-General Hiroyuki Hosoda, as well as deputy prime minister Taro Aso’s 54-member group and former environment minister Nobuteru Ishihara’s 11-member caucus.
Nikai’s faction, which has 47 members, is also expected to back Suga. Nikai and Suga have developed a tight-knit bond since they both ascended to the national political arena after starting out as local assembly members. Suga himself does not have a faction but he is backed by 30 or so lawmakers who embrace his political principles.
Both Ishiba and Kishida have their own factions, but they only have 47 and 19 members, respectively, and have been overwhelmingly outnumbered by those supporting Suga.
Earning endorsement from LDP factions is integral to gaining an advantage in the leadership contest. Each faction is carefully betting on candidates in the hope of being able to exert influence in the selection of Cabinet personnel and agenda-setting in the upcoming administration.
Notice will reportedly be issued for the LDP presidential election on Tuesday of next week, with the vote expected to take place Sept. 14. Suzuki said prefectural party chapters would conduct a survey among rank-and-file members so that local organizations would be able to reflect their viewpoint in the vote. Some local LDP chapters are contemplating holding a primary election.
It is believed that the new LDP chief will be nominated and take over from the prime minister on Sept. 16.