LDP needs to regain trust through vigorous debate in leadership race

Amid the prolonged novel coronavirus pandemic, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party has been dealt a series of election defeats, putting it in a tough situation. Candidates need to actively discuss their political views on what is needed to restore trust.

In line with the expiration of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s term as party president, the LDP has set Sept. 29 as the date for its presidential election and ballot counting, with campaigning to officially start on Sept. 17. Suga has already expressed his intention to run for reelection, and former LDP Policy Research Council Chairman Fumio Kishida has also announced his candidacy.

Hakubun Shimomura, current chairman of the council, and Sanae Takaichi, former internal affairs and communications minister, have also expressed aspirations. The focus is whether they can secure the recommendations of 20 LDP lawmakers needed to file for candidacy.

The presidential election is the first since September last year, in which Suga won out over Kishida and former LDP Secretary General Shigeru Ishiba following the resignation of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. It will be a referendum on Suga’s handling of the government. The outcome of the political fight could have ramifications on the upcoming House of Representatives election.

“Public trust, which is the foundation of politics, is collapsing,” Kishida said at a press conference. “I will run to protect democracy in our country.”

Kishida pointed out that the voices of the people regarding measures against the coronavirus and other issues have fallen on deaf ears among politicians, and has expressed an intention to strengthen party governance through such measures as setting term limits for party executive posts.

Kishida must present before the public concrete points of contention, such as what problems currently exist in the prime minister’s administration and party management, and what changes should be made.

The prime minister will mark one year in office on Sept. 16. Although progress has been made on such campaign pledges as launching a digital agency and lowering mobile phone fees, he has failed to display sufficient leadership in battling the pandemic.

In terms of party management, it cannot be said that Suga has responded proactively to a series of scandals involving money and politics.

The approval rating for his Cabinet has fallen into the 30% range. Following LDP defeats in three Diet elections for one lower house and two House of Councillors seats in April, a candidate supported by Suga lost the mayoral election of Yokohama, his own constituency. Suga needs to show what has invited such distrust in the party.

In the upcoming presidential election, the candidates will be vying for 766 votes in total — the 383 held by LDP lawmakers and an equal number of ballots based on votes cast by rank-and-file members. Unlike in last year’s election, when voting by the rank-and-file members was not held nationwide, support from those members has become important this time.

Last year, major factions quickly expressed support for Suga, creating the groundswell for a landslide victory. This time as well, the faction led by LDP Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai is solidifying support for Suga.

However, if it becomes obvious that the interests of factions are being given priority, the LDP will have no hope of regaining public trust.

To prevent the spread of the coronavirus, there may be restrictions on candidates campaigning nationwide. It is necessary to make the battle of words visible by holding public debates among the candidates and other means.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Aug. 27, 2021.