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Following Prime Minister and Liberal Democratic Party President Yoshihide Suga’s surprise Sept. 3 announcement that he would not seek re-election as party leader, the ruling LDP was thrown into confusion as to who might stand in the Sept. 29 election. The campaign officially begins Friday, and whoever wins will need strong support from Diet members as well as LDP party members in order to become the next president and — because the LDP is the largest ruling party — prime minister.

What is the structure of this year’s election and how is it different from last year’s?

In the initial round of voting, a total of 383 Diet members will cast their ballots. Another 383 votes will be up for grabs across the nation's 47 prefectures, under an allocation system known as the D’Hondt method, for a total of 766 votes. This allocation method has been adopted by parliamentary systems in dozens of countries.

Under LDP rules, in the initial round, if one candidate does not get a simple majority (384 votes in this case), a runoff election between the two candidates who got the most votes is held. Unlike the first round — where prefectural votes are allocated in proportion to the number of votes the candidates received — in the final round Diet members get one vote each, as do each of the prefectural chapters, for a total of 430 votes. The person who receives a majority — 216 votes or more — is the winner.

How will candidates campaign and discuss policies?

Normally, candidates would travel around the country giving speeches, talking directly to LDP members and trying to drum up support from prefectural chapter members, whose votes will be critical in determining the winner. However, due to COVID-19 restrictions, presidential election debates and campaigning by the candidates and their supporters will take place online, as they did last year.

On Friday, the candidates will make presentations from the LDP headquarters, while on Sept. 20 they will field questions from younger LDP prefectural chapter members online. Between Sept. 23 and 26, there will be a series of online town hall meetings focused on the candidates’ views on the coronavirus response, diplomacy and other major themes. And after the campaign kicks off Friday, a page will be set up on the LDP website to solicit questions from anyone, regardless of whether or not they belong to the party.

Staff counts ballots from rank-and-file Liberal Democratic Party members belonging to the Tokyo chapter at the LDP headquarters in Sep. 2018. | KYODO
Staff counts ballots from rank-and-file Liberal Democratic Party members belonging to the Tokyo chapter at the LDP headquarters in Sep. 2018. | KYODO

Who is eligible to run for LDP president and what does the role entail?

Only LDP Diet members are qualified to run for president. In order to become official candidates, they must secure the signatures of 20 fellow lawmakers.

The president has a number of duties, starting with the appointment of officials to the top party posts of secretary-general, policy research council chair, election strategy division chair and those in charge of dealing with campaign management and public relations. The president also appoints finance committee and party organization members, as well as six of the party’s 25 members of the General Council, which approves the president’s appointments.

What is the president’s term of office and what happens when he or she resigns?

An LDP president’s term of office is, in principle, a three-year term, and he or she can serve for up to three terms. An exception is made if the president quits and the party agrees that the term of office for the new president shall be the remaining term of the predecessor, after which time another election will be held.

This is what happened when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe resigned last year — his term as LDP president was due to finish this month. Suga could have run for his own three-year term in the Sept. 29 election, but elected not to stand. In addition, all LDP officials he appointed will face either reappointment or replacement by whoever wins the election.

How do LDP rank-and-file members actually vote?

By writing down the name of their preferred candidate on a ballot issued by their prefectural administration committees. Voters can either mail their anonymous ballot back to the committee or cast their vote at a designated polling station.

If they vote by mail, the ballot has to be in by no later than the day before Diet members cast their secret ballots. In the case of on-site balloting, it's up to each prefectural chapter to arrange the exact voting dates and hours, and where the polling venues are to be located.

Prefectural ballots are counted on the same day as Diet member’s to prevent the one result from affecting the other.

Candidates pose in Sapporo in September 2012. | KYODO
Candidates pose in Sapporo in September 2012. | KYODO

Diet members also use paper ballots to vote, as no electronic voting is allowed. They gather at an auditorium in the LDP headquarters in Tokyo and, as their names are individually called out, go up on stage to cast their vote. There they write down the name of their preferred candidate on the paper ballot with their backs turned to the audience and TV cameras and put it into the ballot box.

After voting by Diet members is complete, the boxes are emptied out on tables set up on stage and party election officials divide the ballots up by hand and tabulate them. The prefectural chapters also tabulate their results and send them to the central headquarters. The results of the Diet members’ votes and prefectural chapters voting are then announced and a winner is declared. A second round is held if a majority is not reached.

Does the winner automatically become prime minister?

There is nothing in the LDP constitution that says the president automatically assumes the prime minister’s position if the LDP is the largest party in the Diet. In a ruling coalition, for example, the prime minister could theoretically be someone outside the LDP who was selected by agreement between the LDP and the other party or parties it has tied up with. But in LDP governments, either when the party had a majority by itself or in combination with parties such as Komeito, that has never happened.

Obviously, when the LDP is not in power, the party president simply serves as another opposition leader.

Since the LDP was formed in 1955, it has been the opposition party only twice. During the first period, between July 1993 and September 1995, Yohei Kono, the father of vaccine czar and LDP presidential candidate Taro Kono, served as party president. The LDP returned to power in June 1994, but Tomiichi Murayama of coalition partner the Socialist Party became the prime minister and Kono remained only as president. During most of the second time it was out of power, between September 2009 and September 2012, Sadakazu Tanigaki was party president.

The two presidents served the first term and didn’t run for the re-election.

Tanigaki was replaced by Abe in September 2012. Abe became prime minister when the LDP returned to power in the December 2012 Lower House election with a majority of votes but in a coalition government with Komeito.

Liberal Democratic Party policy chief Fumio Kishida (left), Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba — the three LDP presidential candidates — pose at a joint news conference in Tokyo on Sept. 8, 2020. | KYODO
Liberal Democratic Party policy chief Fumio Kishida (left), Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba — the three LDP presidential candidates — pose at a joint news conference in Tokyo on Sept. 8, 2020. | KYODO

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