Former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda put a damper on the Liberal Democratic Party’s presidential race when he dropped out of the running. Who will succeed Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in September?

Now it has become certain that Defense Agency Director General Fukushiro Nukaga, who had hinted at a candidacy, will not run. The second most powerful LDP faction, headed by former health minister Yuji Tsushima, decided not to field him. Mr. Nukaga is expected to accept the decision.

Without Mr. Nukaga’s participation, there is no candidate to fill the void left by Mr. Fukuda, who was regarded as a strong rival to the front-running Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe. As a result, the likelihood of lively and heated policy debate among the candidates has declined.

Moves by some veteran politicians who are apparently opposed to Mr. Koizumi’s policy line and are reluctant to support Mr. Abe have cast a pall over the election. Former LDP Secretary General Makoto Koga and former Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Toshihiro Nikai are now supporting Mr. Abe. Former LDP Vice President Taku Yamasaki has opted not to run. Each of the three may have decided it was better to maintain his political influence by supporting a favorite horse candidate, or Mr. Abe, rather than challenge him in a fight over policy matters.

Mr. Nukaga had said it was necessary to “reform Asian diplomacy,” particularly toward China and South Korea. This was a strong antithetical note to the refrain of Mr. Koizumi, whose visits to Yasukuni Shrine have badly damaged Japan’s relations with the two neighboring countries, and to Mr. Abe, who is believed to be hawkish toward China and South Korea. It has been reported that Mr. Abe secretly visited the shrine in April.

While two other candidates have expressed their views on the Yasukuni issue, Mr. Abe has remained mum. To enliven debate on the issue, he should speak up on what he will do with regard to Yasukuni, which enshrines 14 Class-A war criminals as well as Japan’s 2.46 million war dead.

Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki, who has announced his candidacy, said he will not visit the shrine if he becomes prime minister. Foreign Minister Taro Aso, scheduled to announce his candidacy Aug. 21, has proposed turning Yasukuni into a state-run facility at which to offer prayers for the repose of the souls of the war dead, with the shrine’s religious status stripped. But Mr. Aso has failed to mention the ideological role that Yasukuni played in mobilizing Japan for war in the 1930s and ’40s. He believes politicians should not tell the shrine what to do with the enshrined 14 Class-A war criminals.

Mr. Nukaga’s position on Asian diplomacy is rooted in the origin of the Tsushima faction, a successor group to the faction headed by the late Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto. That faction in turn traces its history back to the late Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, the very person who established diplomatic relations between Japan and China in September 1972.

The Tsushima faction has been critical of Mr. Koizumi’s policy toward China. The faction includes many politicians who have resisted Mr. Koizumi’s policy of reducing public works spending. Mr. Nukaga’s entry into the LDP presidential race would have been symbolic because Mr. Abe is originally of the faction that dates back to ex-Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda, the political rival of ex-Prime Minister Tanaka. In deciding not to field Mr. Nukaga, the Tsushima faction is said to believe that he would not fare well in the presidential election, and would thus harm his future political prospects.

Since both Mr. Tanigaki and Mr. Aso are from minor factions, they may have difficulty collecting the minimum 20 recommendations needed from LDP Diet members to officially enter the party presidential race. Recent moves by various LDP factions and influential LDP politicians indicate that Mr. Abe could get the support of about 230 of the LDP’s 403 Diet members. An additional 300 votes are allocated to local party chapters. Many LDP politicians may be thinking that in order for the party to win Upper House elections next year, it will be necessary to smoothly install Mr. Abe into the position of LDP president, and hence prime minister, and to foster party unity under him.

Such an approach would dampen policy debate among candidates. It is all the more important that Mr. Tanigaki and Mr. Aso stir up policy discussions by presenting bold counterproposals to Mr. Abe’s — not only over diplomacy and the Yasukuni issue but also over domestic issues. All candidates must demonstrate a clear vision of Japan’s future. Most importantly, they should address how Japan should continue with financial reconstruction — the basis for long-term economic growth and stable social welfare services.

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