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The Liberal Democratic Party quickly wrapped up its discussions to extend the maximum tenure of its president. However, the ruling party does not seem to be paying much attention to more complicated and serious issues that concern its future.

In just about a month after the party’s political reform panel led by Vice President Masahiko Komura began discussions on the matter, the LDP effectively decided in late October to allow its president to run for three consecutive three-year terms, instead of the current maximum of two terms — a decision scheduled to be officially endorsed in a party convention next year. That will pave the way for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the incumbent party chief, to run for yet another term as LDP president when his current term ends in September 2018. Initial calls for caution over the change by the potential post-Abe leaders who stand to see their chances of a near-term ascent to the party presidency dashed, such as Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and former Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba, quickly faded away.

Right after Abe led the LDP to a fourth straight national election victory in the Upper House campaign in July, a majority of lawmakers who advocated extending the tenure were calling for the change as a special case for Abe’s benefit, so that he could remain in office to host the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. Therefore, not just Kishida or Ishiba but others, including Shinjiro Koizumi, son of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and considered a future potential party leader, expressed their doubt that this was an issue deserving of the party’s priority attention.

That changed when LDP elders proposed a permanent change to the party’s rules on the terms of its president at a September meeting of executive members of the panel for reform of the party and political system, during which LDP policy chief Toshimitsu Motegi said Japan is the only Group of Seven country whose major parties restrict the number of terms that their chiefs can serve.

In Britain, neither the Conservative nor the Labour Party has any limit on the number of times their leaders may get re-elected. Margaret Thatcher headed the Conservatives for 15 years, while Tony Blair led Labour for 13 years. In Germany, Angela Merkel, chancellor since 2005, was re-elected in 2014 to an eighth term as leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) — a position that she has now held for 16 years. Had the CDU limited its leader’s tenure, Germany might not have enjoyed the extended stability in domestic politics that elevated the nation to its leadership position in the European Union.

In the first place, the LDP’s term limit for its president was introduced under the so-called ’55 regime when the party that was created in 1955 dominated power for decades and its presidency effectively meant the prime ministership. The term limit was not created out of consideration for the public. Rather it was introduced so that the party’s factional leaders could take turns holding power. The rule to prohibit a party president from running for a third consecutive term took effect in 1980, when the factional power struggles intensified under the administration of Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira. The rule was left untouched when the party gave an extra year to Yasuhiro Nakasone as a special case in 1986 and the duration of each term was extended from two to three years under the Koizumi administration in the early 2000s.

The main opposition Democratic Party has no term limit for its president. Shii Kazuo has been Japanese Communist Party chief since 2000, and Natsuo Yamaguchi has led LDP coalition partner Komeito since 2009.

It seemed to make sense for the LDP to remove the term limit for its president, and neither Kishi or Ishiba could find any grounds to resist such a change. However, Komura managed to win consensus support for a proposal to limit the tenure to three consecutive three-year terms. That not only contradicted the cause of reviewing the rule — to eliminate the term limit — but the odd number of three three-year terms in a row increases the chances of creating gaps between the LDP president’s tenure and the four-year term of Lower House members.

Shortening each term to two years would require an LDP president to seek the verdict of party members at shorter intervals, giving the party more frequent chances to review its own ways and providing a check against problems associated with a long-running administration. This would make it feasible to eliminate the restrictions on how many times someone can be a party chief. The way the party elders sought to settle on the three consecutive three-year terms seems to have been driven by internal party concerns — not on their views about how national politics and political parties should be run.

A problem of even greater importance is that while the LDP is busy working on the issue of its president’s tenure, other more crucial challenges that the party must tackle are not getting enough attention.

With populism doing harm to politics in many parts of the world, serious questions are being asked concerning the roles political parties are supposed to play as intermediaries between voters and those in power. The fact that moderate Republicans in the United States openly rebelled against the party’s candidate — Donald Trump — in the final phase of this year’s presidential race gave the impression that the Grand Old Party is in decline. The inability of the Republican moderates to prevent the nomination of Trump in itself was an indication of the failure of the party’s function to nurture and choose sensible new leaders.

Since returning to power in 2012, the LDP experienced a rash of misconduct by its junior lawmakers. Still, the party does not seem to have enough sense of crisis over the malfunction of its system to nurture and select younger-generation politicians for its ranks. A large portion of its Diet seats are occupied by “dynastic” lawmakers who inherited the political base of their relatives, and powerful local figures in each constituency still hold sway over the selection of the party’s candidates. Under the single-seat electoral district system, large numbers of younger lawmakers can potentially be replaced with just a change in the political wind. There are a wide variety of issues that need to be discussed in order to revitalize the party. But when the LDP talks about reform of the party, all that its members seem to discuss is changing the internal rules concerning its president’s tenure.

Enacting a basic law governing political parties — an idea long entertained — is not even on the table for current political discussion. In view of the parties’ strong influence on public life, many other advanced countries have laws that define the requirements, mission and powers of political parties. Such a law in Germany, for example, obliges political parties to run their organizations in a democratic manner, while at the same time government subsidies highlight the public nature of political parties.

In Japan, requirements of political parties are stipulated in the Public Offices Election Law and the law on state subsidies for parties, but only for the purpose of restricting their campaign activities or setting the rules for doling out the subsidies.

There is deep-rooted concern that enacting a comprehensive law on political parties would interfere with the freedom of association guaranteed by the Constitution. But it seems unreasonable that there are no stipulations under the law on the powers of, for example, the secretary-general of a governing party — who can have greater powers than a Cabinet minister. Virtually all political power is concentrated in the hands of the ruling party, and the LDP — with its rich experience in running the government — must be in a position to reform the current situation in which a party in power is under no legal obligation to run its organization in a transparent and accountable manner. It is pathetic that all that the “party and political system reform” panel takes up is a review of the party president’s tenure.

According to an opinion poll conducted by Jiji Press in October, nearly 60 percent of the respondents said the maximum tenure of the LDP president should remain as it is. This may be due partly to the respondents’ lack of understanding of the subject, but it may also show that the general public was becoming tired of Abe in power. And that was probably the very reason he wanted to get the extension adopted quickly. If more pressing reforms have been pushed aside as a result, the LDP may sooner rather than later face the nightmare that hit the U.S. Republican Party.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the November issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering political, social and economic scenes. English articles of the magazine can be read at https://www.sentaku-en.com .

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