Japan's LDP leadership race enters home stretch

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The ruling Liberal Democratic Party's (LDP) presidential election, which will also see the winner selected as Japan's next prime minister at an extraordinary Diet session on Wednesday due to the party's parliamentary dominance, entered the home stretch on Sunday.

The three candidates who are vying to be Abe's successor are Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, 71, who has been Abe's right-hand man for almost eight years, Shigeru Ishiba, 63, a former defense minister and a rare critic of Abe within the LDP, and Fumio Kishida, 63, a former foreign minister who serves as the LDP's policy chief.

Suga, Japan's top government spokesperson, has seemingly dominated the election race as the "continuity candidate" pledging to prioritize Abe's continued offensive against the novel coronavirus pandemic, while vowing to stick to the prime minister's "Abenomics" economic policy mix of drastic monetary easing, fiscal stimulus and structural reforms.

Having secured the backing of five of the LDP's seven major factions, a hefty number of unaffiliated lawmakers and thus the majority of the 394 lawmakers who will cast ballots on Monday, according to media polls and party sources, it would seem likely Suga will be a shoo-in to take the top post.

While this might be the case, political observers have pointed out that were Suga to win a landslide victory on Monday, the number of votes secured by Ishiba and Kishida will still be of importance as they will act as a harbinger of sentiment for the next presidential election to be held by the end of September next year when Abe's current term ends.

All three candidates' policy pledges overlap and contrast to a degree, with all three of them keen to bolster the economy and underpin its recovery from the pandemic.

Kishida and Ishiba, however, have argued that more needs to be done aside from merely following what they have intimated is an anachronistic "Abenomics" policy initiative to put the world's third largest, yet recession-hit economy on a sustainable growth track and ensure an earning environment that is more equitable for all, starting with base wages.

Suga, meanwhile, has hinted that another tax hike might be on the cards in the future, a point his competitors have kept quiet on in the latest debates.

Ishiba has maintained his view that Asian nations should create their own version of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to deepen security cooperation, an idea that Suga warned could alienate certain countries Japan is trying to deepen ties with.

As the polls await Monday, rumors emanating from LDP bigwigs have been swirling that no sooner has the new leader been selected, a snap election could come "soon."

Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, who serves concurrently as finance minister, said that the next administration would likely face criticism for being formed without a public mandate.

"If so, I feel like the new prime minister is going to dissolve the lower house," Aso, who controls one of the largest factions in the LDP which is backing Suga, said recently.

Defense Minister Taro Kono, also a member of Aso's faction, made similar remarks, saying that he expects a general election in October.

Suga, for his part, on Sunday opted not to say whether he would dissolve the lower house of parliament for a snap election if he were to become the nation's leader.

"What the people want the most is to keep a balance between preventing further infections of the novel coronavirus and promoting economic activities," said Suga.

Suga sidestepped the question when asked on an NHK program along with his two rivals, and resolutely stuck to his line that his priorities remain tackling the virus and boosting the economy.

"This may have been a skill he's picked up having been at Abe's side for then best part of eight years," a political observer said half-jokingly after the NHK program.

As for Abe, it was just days after becoming the nation's longest-serving leader that he abruptly announced late last month that he plans to step down owing to the same health issue, ulcerative colitis, an intestinal disease, that forced him to relinquish his role as prime minister during his first stint as leader beginning 2006, flaring up again.

Abe felt he could not fulfill his mandate as prime minister owing to his ill health and in stepping down paved the way for an election race to select the LDP's new leader, who by virtue of the ruling party's majority influence in parliament, will also succeed Abe as prime minister.

Due to Abe stepping down mid-term, the LDP's General Council decided it would be prudent to hold a scaled-down presidential election with voting applicable only to lawmakers and delegates from the party's local chapters, with rank-and-file members excluded form the process.

The abridged election process was decided by the council to simplify the process and to avoid a political vacuum, particularly as the government continues to grapple with dealing with the novel coronavirus pandemic.

In the scaled-down vote, 394 Diet members will cast ballots and a total of 141 votes will be cast by three delegates each from the country's 47 prefectural chapters.

The party's new leader will be elected at a joint plenary meeting of LDP party members from both houses of Japan's bicameral parliament to be at a Tokyo hotel from 2:00 p.m. local time on Sept. 14, LDP party officials have said.

The LDP and the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ) agreed to convene an extraordinary Diet session and choose the new prime minister on Sept. 16.

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