The Liberal Democratic Party has effectively cut short the campaign period for its leadership election in the aftermath of the Sept. 6 earthquake that has caused deaths and serious damage in Hokkaido.

The party is right to put the top priority on responding to the natural disaster. But it needs to use the race, which virtually elects the nation’s next prime minister, to give voters enough opportunities to hear the candidates speak about key policy issues in robust and illuminating debates.

The campaign officially started on Sept. 7, raising the curtain on a one-on-one battle between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is seeking re-election for a third term, and former LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba.

Ishiba, an outspoken party heavyweight who has served a potpourri of key party and Cabinet posts, is fighting to end the leadership of Abe, who has gained dominant political power--with clearly harmful effects--through his five years and nine months of governing the nation.

The ruling party has decided to suspend all campaign activities for three days until Sept. 9 to focus on responding to the quake, which registered the maximum intensity of 7 on the Japanese seismic scale.

The opening salvos in the battle will be exchanged on Sept. 10, when the two candidates are slated to deliver speeches on their policy platforms and hold a joint news conference.

Since Abe is scheduled to visit Russia on Sept. 10-13, however, the actual campaign period for the Sept. 20 poll will be only about one week.

Nobody would dispute the appropriateness of the LDP’s decision to suspend the race for three days because it is widely known that the first 72 hours after a disaster are critical for saving survivors in life-threatening situations.

But it would have been better if the party had decided to delay the start of the campaign period and the polling day. If it is difficult to postpone the day to officially start the race, the party should have at least considered putting back the election day.

Ishiba called for putting off the election to ensure sufficient debate without causing any unwanted effects on the disaster response.

Abe’s term as LDP president runs through Sept. 30. He can respond more flexibly to Ishiba’s proposal even if his schedule for this month includes some important diplomatic events, including the United Nations General Assembly meeting.

The situation is troubling because Abe, who has secured the support of many LDP Diet members for his re-election bid, has been reluctant to hold a policy debate with his challenger.

Abe failed to announce a new policy agenda for his next three-year term before the start of the campaign period.

Moreover, few LDP lawmakers seem interested in staging an open and meaningful policy debate to improve the party’s platform and win broad public support. Toshiaki Nikai, the party’s secretary-general, has said the election outcome became clear the moment Abe announced his candidacy.

Former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, who is currently chairman of the LDP’s Policy Research Council, was seen as one of the leading candidates to succeed Abe. But he decided against joining the race as early as July and voiced his support for Abe’s re-election.

Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Seiko Noda, who has been critical about how Abe is wielding overwhelming political power, failed to be nominated by 20 LDP Diet members as required to run for party president. After being forced to give up running, just as she was three years ago, she switched to backing Abe.

These facts indicate an appalling dearth of talent and sagging political energy in the party, which has more than 400 lawmakers as its members.

The leadership election is a great opportunity for the LDP to seek public support for its policy programs to tackle the raft of tough challenges facing Japanese society, including the rapid aging of the population amid low birthrates.

If it squanders this opportunity, the LDP’s qualifications to serve as the ruling party should be called into question.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Sept. 8