Photo/IllutrationFormer Liberal Democratic Party Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shake hands at a joint news conference in Tokyo on Sept. 10 for the LDP presidential election. (The Asahi Shimbun)

The Liberal Democratic Party’s leadership election should prompt the ruling party to seriously and honestly assess the pros and cons of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s five years and nine months of governing this nation. The election should also arouse constructive debate about the course Japan should take in the next three years.

This requires Abe and his sole challenger in the presidential race, former LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba, to hold candid and specific discussions about the questions and concerns of the public instead of aiming their speeches only at party members.

Campaign debates started on Sept. 10 after being suspended for three days in light of the deadly and destructive Sept. 6 earthquake in Hokkaido.

Since Abe was re-elected uncontested in the previous LDP presidential poll three years ago, this is the first leadership election for the party in six years.

TEST FOR LDP’S SELF-CLEANSING POWER

If he is re-elected for a third term, Abe could become the longest-serving prime minister in the history of Japan’s constitutional government. Taro Katsura, a prewar prime minister, holds the current record of 2,886 days.

Abe should not be allowed to continue leading the nation without facing a rigorous postmortem on his performance, which has been marked by the harmful effects of his dominant political power.

The way Abe has wielded his political dominance to promote his policy agenda has deprived the policymaking process of healthy tension. It has also created a “sontaku” mind-set among bureaucrats, a tendency to act on the assumed but unexpressed wishes and intentions of the powerful prime minister.

This atmosphere has distorted the relationship between politics and bureaucracy.

The Abe administration has been embroiled in an endless stream of scandals because of arrogance and lax discipline among officials within the government and the ruling party.

The Diet, meanwhile, has been rendered a toothless watchdog of the government because of the administration’s high-handed approach to Diet affairs management.

The principal test of the LDP’s ability to restore the health of democracy in Japan is whether the party will tackle head-on the scandals involving Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Educational Institution, two school operators with links to Abe or his wife. The scandals have seriously damaged administrative fairness as well as the credibility of politics.

When asked about the public’s criticism of his administration concerning the scandals, Abe said on Sept. 10, “While accepting criticism seriously, I want to run my administration humbly and politely.”

But he made no reference to specific questions related to the scandals. This must be taken as a sign that Abe has no intention to seriously respond to the criticism or really address the issues raised.

Abe has repeatedly pledged to offer “thoughtful and scrupulous explanations” about the political favoritism scandals and engage in “sincere soul-searching.” However, no serious effort has been made to uncover the truth, and no one has been held politically responsible.

The administration’s half-hearted responses to the scandals have only deepened public cynicism toward politicians.

The problems with Japanese politics as highlighted by the scandals will never be sorted out unless Abe decides to go all the way in revealing the truth.

Ishiba has cited the “restoration of public trust” in politics as a key issue for the LDP election. If so, he needs to specify the problems with Abe’s approach to make a convincing argument.

Both Abe and Ishiba should understand that the election is an important test of the party’s ability to clean itself up.

COMPREHENSIVE REVIEW OF ABENOMICS NEEDED

Abe’s economic program, known as Abenomics, also needs a sweeping review to identify why it has become ineffective.

To be fair, Abenomics has produced some positive results, including a correction to excessive strength of the yen, robust corporate performances and higher stock prices. But it has failed to create a virtuous economic cycle by generating strong growth in wages and consumer spending. And the end to deflation is still nowhere in sight.

The medium- and long-term stability of the social security system and public finances remains in doubt. The economic “achievements” Abe has stressed should not justify giving him a mandate for another three years.

While acknowledging the benefits of Abenomics, Ishiba stressed the need for policy efforts that will ensure a substantial rise in individual income and promote growth of local economies and small and midsize businesses.

Ishiba apparently thinks the beneficiaries of Abenomics have been largely limited to big companies and urban areas, leaving many people feeling left out. If so, he should offer concrete policy alternatives.

The LDP election should provide an opportunity to reappraise the net effects of Abe’s economic policy agenda and debate related policy issues, such as an exit strategy for the extremely expansive monetary policy and a road map to fiscal health.

Abe and Ishiba have shown clear differences on constitutional revision, a key component of the LDP’s policy platform.

“The time has come (for the party) to tackle constitutional amendments,” Abe said on Sept. 10, emphasizing the need to enshrine the status of the Self-Defense Forces in war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution to leave no room for debate on the constitutionality of the SDF.

Ishiba, on the other hand, has proposed deleting the second paragraph of Article 9, which denies the nation “the right of belligerency” and bans Japan from maintaining “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential.”

But Ishiba is calling for putting immediate priority on amendments to eliminate combined electoral districts for the Upper House that have been created through merging two prefectural districts, as well as establishing a provision to deal with state emergencies.

It is hard to believe, however, that many Japanese want the Constitution rewritten now, when the nation faces a long list of tough challenges that require all-out policy efforts, including the rapid aging of the population amid a demographic decline.

GET POLICY PRIORITIES RIGHT

In a Sept. 10 news conference, Abe described constitutional amendments as a key policy for his new three-year term. He said that submitting the LDP’s proposal to amend the Constitution to an extraordinary Diet session in autumn should be seen as a “goal of sorts.”

The ruling party needs to make realistic decisions on how to use its limited political capital to address what are viewed as the most important issues for people’s livelihoods.

Japan’s foreign and security policies, which have reached a major turning point, should also be reviewed and reassessed from medium- and long-term perspectives.

The government is slated to revise its basic defense program outline at the end of the year, for the first time in five years.

Abe has been using North Korea’s weapons programs to support his case for beefing up Japan’s defense capabilities and making a headlong rush toward integrating the nation’s defense system with that of the United States.

Ishiba has promised to reconsider Japan’s defense policy and the bilateral Status of Forces Agreement from the viewpoint of the interests of the people. We are eager to see robust debate between the two candidates on these issues.

Abe, who has already secured the support of five of the seven LDP factions, is widely regarded as a shoo-in.

And many LDP lawmakers have jumped on the Abe bandwagon without paying much attention to policy debates.

Instead of just following the trend, individual LDP legislators, as elected representatives of the people, should make their own decisions after carefully studying the views and proposals of the candidates.

If the party fails to take effective action to clean up the rot created during Abe’s lengthy tenure, the LDP will only see the public become increasingly critical of its ability to govern the nation.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Sept. 11