Even as the Liberal Democratic Party leadership race is about to kick off for the Sept. 20 vote, a victory by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe already looks secure. Media reports suggest that Abe, with the backing of most of the party’s factional groups, has already cemented support from roughly 80 percent of the LDP’s lawmakers in the Diet. The only question at this point would appear to be how overwhelming his victory will be against the sole contender, former LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba, who lost to Abe in the last party leadership election in 2012.

Having a hand in the decision will be the LDP’s Diet members and more than 1 million local members and supporters of the party. But given the LDP’s grip on a Diet majority, this race will effectively choose Japan’s prime minister for the coming three years.

During the campaign, both Abe and Ishiba should engage in substantial public debates on policy issues that confront the nation going forward. This will be the first LDP leadership race since the party returned to power in 2012 — because Abe was re-elected to his second term in 2015 without a contest as nobody emerged to challenge him. This will be an occasion for the LDP’s lawmakers as well as its local members to hand down their judgment on the six years of the Abe administration.

After Ishiba announced his intention to run, Abe waited until late August to make official his bid for a third term as LDP chief. By that time, most of the LDP’s factions, including the one from which he hails, had made clear that they would throw their support behind Abe’s re-election through 2021. A meeting Monday that kicked off Abe’s campaign headquarters was attended by 346 of the LDP’s 405 Diet members or their proxies — roughly 85 percent of the total.

By contrast, Ishiba, who heads a small LDP group of his own, has garnered the support of Upper House members of the faction led by Wataru Takeshita, head of the party’s General Council. However, Takeshita’s group has been divided in its response to the party race, with the group’s Lower House members expressing support for Abe’s re-election while some of its Upper House members are also expected to vote for the prime minister.

Near unanimous support for Abe by the party’s factions may not come as a surprise given his track record at the polls — he led the LDP to landslide wins in all three Lower House and two Upper House elections since 2012. In fact, the change adopted last year in the party’s rules to enable an LDP president to run for a third term, instead of the previous maximum of two terms, was effectively an indication of the endorsement by much of the party for Abe to stay on as prime minister through 2021.

At the same time, the fact that most LDP factions announced their support for Abe well before he officially announced his bid for another term — and without any discussions on the candidates’ policy agendas — appears to illustrate Abe’s ironclad dominance of the party over the past six years, during which the LDP witnessed little dissent to the party leadership and scant intra-party discussions on the administration’s policies.

Despite his significant lead, Abe is reportedly bent on delivering Ishiba a crushing defeat. Since the next term, if he wins, will be his last as LDP chief, a close win could put Abe’s clout in doubt and possibly relegate him to lame duck status. He hopes to win a new term as a powerful leader so that he can push his remaining agenda, in particular amending the Constitution.

The focus is on how local LDP members and supporters will vote. Their ballots have been given the same weight as those of the party’s lawmakers. Their votes will count the same as that of the Diet members — 405 this time — and the candidate who wins a majority of the 810 total votes will be the winner.

In the 2012 race, Ishiba got more votes than Abe in the first round, thanks mainly to the large number of votes he collected from local party members, before he was defeated by Abe in a runoff.

The votes by local members and supporters may be less bound by the political dynamics of Nagatacho — one reason that there have been upset results in past LDP presidential races. This time, Abe is believed to be ahead of Ishiba among local members and supporters — a recent Kyodo News poll showed 60 percent of LDP supporters favoring Abe as LDP chief over 24 percent for Ishiba. If both Abe and Ishiba want to woo the local LDP votes in this race, there is all the more reason for the contestants to engage in substantial policy debate so they can convince the party’s members and supporters to vote for them.

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