Foreign Minister Taro Aso became the second person to announce his candidacy for the Liberal Democratic Party presidential election next month, following Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki. Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, the front-runner in the race, is expected to throw his hat into the ring Sept. 1.
It is hoped that Mr. Aso’s entry will stir up debate among the candidates on policy matters. This is all the more important since many LDP lawmakers appear to have jumped on the Abe bandwagon to try to line up good positions in the party or in the Cabinet and, as a result, have lost interest in policy discussions that could be divisive.
Since former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda decided not to enter the LDP race, Mr. Abe has built a massive lead. According to a recent poll by Kyodo News, 53 percent of those surveyed support Mr. Abe as the next prime minister — for which becoming LDP president is a prerequisite — leaving his rivals far behind. A mere 14.8 percent are said to favor Mr. Tanigaki, and 11.2 percent support Mr. Aso.
Mr. Aso, from a small faction formerly led by Lower House Speaker Yohei Kono, may even have difficulty in getting recommendations from at least 20 LDP lawmakers, a condition for entering the LDP presidential race. Even if he foresees an uphill battle, he should not shrink from boldly presenting his own views.
In presenting an overall vision of what Japan should be like, Mr. Aso said he would like to build a society in which citizens have a real feeling of affluence with a sense of security. He distinguishes his policy line from that of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi by asserting that Mr. Koizumi “destroyed” the vested interests that had support within the LDP and the bureaucracy, but that now the nation must proceed to “creation.”
As one of the main planks in his platform, Mr. Abe is pushing financial assistance for people who have failed in business to enable them to pursue a second chance at a career. Mr. Tanigaki is proposing a society in which citizens and the state are connected with “bonds of mutual trust.” Both Mr. Aso and Mr. Tanigaki call for equalizing the financial footing of local governments. Clearly, though, all three politicians’ main programs are just words so far.
Touching on the nation’s financial reconstruction, a crucial issue related to healthy economic growth and maintenance of social welfare services, Mr. Aso is critical of Mr. Tanigaki’s call for raising the consumption tax rate from 5 percent to at least 10 percent by the middle of 2010s. The foreign minister believes spending cuts should be the primary means of financial reconstruction, and that a consumption tax hike will shatter the current economic recovery. Mr. Abe also favors spending cuts.
Mr. Aso has also urged “bold tax reductions” to generate the economic growth that would increase tax revenues. Mr. Aso and Mr. Abe do not rule out the need for tax increases in the future, but both refrain from specifics. Each candidate should clarify the reasons for his position on the nation’s finances.
On the diplomatic front, Mr. Aso calls for a “switch in Japan’s diplomacy,” stressing that good relations between Japan and China are indispensable for stability in Asia. Apparently referring to Mr. Koizumi’s repeated visits to Yasukuni Shrine, he said: “It is abnormal that the two nations cannot hold a summit due to one problem. It is necessary to rectify this distortion resolutely.” But he has yet to present concrete proposals aimed at improving Japan’s relations with China and South Korea.
Only Mr. Tanigaki has made it clear that he will not visit Yasukuni, which enshrines 14 Class-A war criminals as well as Japan’s 2.46 million war dead, if he becomes prime minister. Mr. Abe and Mr. Aso have not yet announced whether they will visit Yasukuni if elected prime minister. Mr. Aso talks only about the future form of Yasukuni Shrine. He proposes that the shrine be stripped of its religious status and be turned into a state-run war memorial.
All the candidates must make public their view of the wars Japan waged in the 1930s and ’40s. This is not a matter best left in the past. Their view on this matter is important in judging the direction they want to lead Japan. It must be remembered that after the war Japan was reborn with the determination to discard its past colonialism and militarism.
Mr. Abe stresses the need to write a new Constitution. Apparently with Mr. Abe’s nationalistic inclinations in mind, Mr. Tanigaki has criticized the argument that rejects the decisions of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East. Keeping mum on Japan’s wars of the 1930s and ’40s will only deepen suspicions among neighboring countries about Japan’s future direction.
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