LDP candidates prepare for runoff scenarios

LDP presidential candidate standings and challenges

Kimimasa Mayama/Pool via REUTERS
Contenders for the presidential election of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) pose prior to a joint news conference at the party’s headquarters in Tokyo, Japan, 17 September 2021.

The Liberal Democratic Party presidential election enters its final stage with a close fight brewing among the candidates.

While Taro Kono, minister in charge of administrative and regulatory reform, and Fumio Kishida, former chairperson of the party’s Policy Research Council, are in for a fierce showdown, Sanae Takaichi, a former internal affairs and communications minister, is persistently trying to catch up with the two.

With all eyes fixed on a highly likely runoff, each candidate’s camp is developing its election strategy. But every camp has its own challenges ahead for the election to be held Wednesday.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
An illustration : LDP presidential election

Kishida pins hopes on 2nd round

“It is indeed a close race,” Kishida said Sunday in Tokyo. “I want to use all my strength to stay in the race through the runoff.”

Kishida made the comments after visiting a home for the elderly who need special care.

“I am also doing mental gymnastics,” he said when asked about the likely runoff.

Kishida is in the lead when it comes to support from LDP Diet members, according to a recent Yomiuri Shimbun survey. As part of the survey, the members of Kishida’s intraparty faction were asked to approach five LDP Diet members outside the faction to report on the impressions they got as to how people intended to vote.

In the last couple of days ahead of the election, Kishida has been focusing on making phone calls to LDP Diet members in the hopes of steadfastly maintaining his lead in this portion of the vote. His camp has drawn up a scenario in which no candidate obtains a majority of the votes and Kishida finishes in second to make it to the runoff, in which he seems poised to seize a come-from-behind victory.

A runoff between the top two candidates will be heavily weighted toward LDP Diet members, as they retain 382 votes, while the rank-and-file votes will be whittled down to 47 votes, one for each LDP prefectural chapter.

The Kishida camp is angling to form a union for the runoff with the likely third-place finisher, Takaichi.

A middle-ranking member of the Kishida faction said to a Diet member who supports Takaichi: “If Kono and Takaichi are in a runoff, I will vote for Takaichi. If we end up in a runoff, I want you to cast your vote for Kishida.”

This “winning formula” will obviously fall apart if Kishida ends up third. While Takaichi is moving up behind Kono and Kishida, there is speculation circulating within the Kishida faction that LDP Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai’s faction, with many of its 47 Diet members displeased with the reforms advocated by Kishida to place term limits on the party’s executive posts, will employ a clever “anti-Kishida” scheme.

The scheme would involve the Nikai faction gathering support for Takaichi to have her finish second, and then changing tack in the runoff to support Kono.

A senior official of the Nikai faction did not rule out such a scheme, saying, “It depends on whether there is a chance of winning.”

The Kishida camp is also anxious about party members’ votes in a runoff.

If Kishida secures second to enter a runoff, but ends up third in the voting cast by rank-and-file party members, it is feared that, as one person close to Kishida has put it, “There will be an increase in the number of Diet members who may have second thoughts about Kishida making a come-from-behind victory.”

In the executives’ meeting of the Kishida faction held Friday, faction adviser Akira Amari, who is also chairperson of the LDP’s Research Commission on the Tax System, said: “The landscape we can see from afar is rank-and-file members’ votes, while the landscape we can see up close is those of Diet members. Prioritizing this landscape seen at close range does not mean that the popular will has not been reflected.”

Takaichi propped up by Abe

“There were, at first, even some Diet members who considered Takaichi as a candidate with no hope of winning,” said a senior official of Takaichi’s camp. “But the widening support she has gained has been more than expected.”

The biggest reason for this is the backing of previous Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who seemingly didn’t think about how he would appear for supporting Takaichi.

“It will become difficult for me to support you in the [upcoming] House of Representatives election,” Abe apparently said over the phone to pressure younger members of the Hosoda faction, which he had belonged to, who support someone other than Takaichi.

To Diet members who have made clear their support of Takaichi, Abe is taking meticulous care to courteously convey his thanks so as to keep Takaichi in range of finishing second.

Even if she makes it to a runoff, however, there are no prospects of her winning.

As a senior official of the Kishida faction has put it, “It is hard to think that a majority of the votes cast for Kishida would go to Takaichi, who is a staunch conservative.”

Kono aims to maintain lead

“There would be no reason whatsoever to do such a thing,” Kono said angrily at the start of a program on Fuji TV that aired Sunday in which all the candidates were present. “That’s terrible fake news.”

The host of the show presented a view that, within the Kono camp, there are voices saying that some of their votes should be cast for Takaichi, with speculation that Kono is more likely to win in a runoff against Takaichi than versus Kishida.

Kono is solidly projected to gain the most votes from rank-and-file party members. In the survey on the support trend among Diet members, Kono stands second behind Kishida. Even though he is highly likely to take the most overall votes, an optimistic mood has not prevailed within his camp.

Some in his camp have doubts about his ability to hold on and win in a runoff, when Diet members’ votes will increase in relative importance. They don’t see Kono picking up much more support from LDP Diet members.

Kono has said that he will do his best to win outright with a majority and avoid a runoff. His camp, though, has fixed its sights on a runoff. The strategy is to engage public opinion by presenting Shigeru Ishiba, a former LDP secretary general, and Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi, both popular figures, at the forefront of the campaign, thus exerting mental pressure on Diet members conscious of the upcoming lower house election.

As it is difficult to hold any large-scale roadside speeches amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, however, the exposure of these well-known faces is limited.

The camp is not standing idly by regarding Diet members’ votes, either. On Friday, it distributed a document to the camp’s members on making thorough approaches to other LDP Diet members. The camp urged them to make repeated calls on all LDP Diet members to support Kono by making use of their connections with factions and their contemporaries who were first elected to the Diet in the same election, while also asking them to support Kono in a runoff.

The core of the Diet members who support Kono are mainly younger and middle-ranking legislators who are counting on Kono to serve as the face of the party’s lower house election campaign.

“We have no such leading figures as previous Prime Minister Abe who can individually persuade other Diet members to change their minds,” said a senior official of the election strategy committee in the Kono camp.

Taro Aso, the deputy prime minister and finance minister whose faction Kono belongs to, has not made clear who he is supporting.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who has declared his support for Kono, has refrained from making any moves in connection with the presidential race, partly due to the restraints of being the prime minister.

Several Diet members have not decided who they will support, with some taking into account the upcoming lower house election and echoing the thought, “Is it OK for me to choose someone other than Kono?” So there remains some leeway for the Kono camp’s strategy of attaching importance to public opinion to prove effective.

At an election strategy committee meeting held Friday, Tatsuya Ito, former minister of state for financial services who leads the camp’s election headquarters, emphasized: “Is this a party that will choose its president by deeply regarding the judgment of party members? We must not forget that they [voters] are paying close attention.”

The Yomiuri Shimbun
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