Photo/IllutrationPrime Minister Shinzo Abe and Shigeru Ishiba, a former secretary-general, engage in a debate on Sept. 14 as candidates in the election for Liberal Democratic Party president. (Soichiro Yamamoto)

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe defended his leadership abilities while Shigeru Ishiba took jabs at scandals that have roiled the government as the two squared off on Sept. 14 in the ruling party’s presidential election.

The debate between the only candidates in the Liberal Democratic Party’s election scheduled for Sept. 20 was held at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo.

Abe, who is seeking a third term, has been prime minister for five years and nine months. But the last couple of years have seen his administration hit by a number of scandals, including the falsification of documents by Finance Ministry officials regarding a dubious sale of state-owned land to Moritomo Gakuen, operator of private schools with connections to first lady Akie Abe.

Abe apologized for that scandal.

“We must have civil servants seriously understand the importance of public documents,” the prime minister said at the debate.

Ishiba said the falsifications trampled on the fundamentals of democracy.

“Even if the information may be inconvenient, it is important that all participants in a democracy are made aware of it,” Ishiba, a former LDP secretary-general, said.

A reporter asked Abe about his political responsibility for another scandal involving a different school operator, the Kake Educational Institution, which is headed by his close friend.

“While I never received any money, I have to shoulder the burden of moral responsibility,” Abe said. “The public has already made its judgment about these issues in a Lower House election. At the same time, I recognize that we have not gained the understanding of the public. I want to make the administrative branch one that has regained the public’s trust.”

Another topic raised at the debate was constitutional revision, a long-time goal of Abe.

Abe has made it clear that he wants the LDP to come up with a constitutional amendment draft that can be submitted to the Diet as early as autumn, when an extraordinary Diet session will be convened.

He has said he wants to add wording to pacifist Article 9 of the Constitution to clearly spell out the legal existence of the Self-Defense Forces.

“I do not believe it will be appropriate to revise the Constitution without a sincere explanation to all citizens,” Ishiba said. “I have a major difference (with the prime minister) over how to go about with constitutional revision.”

Ishiba added that rather than fiddle with Article 9, a more pressing issue is doing away with the Upper House prefectural district electoral system that now combines four prefectures into two districts.

Countering Ishiba’s criticism that he was rushing with constitutional revision, Abe said his proposal for an LDP draft was just a general time frame.

Saying constitutional revision has been a goal of the LDP since it was established in 1955, Abe said, “It is only natural for me to lay out our fundamental thinking as leader of the party.”

Ishiba himself is in favor of revising the Constitution, but he has proposed the complete deletion of the second paragraph of Article 9, which states, “The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.”

Ishiba, who once served as defense minister, said that just adding the SDF to the Constitution would not eliminate all constitutional issues if the wording about the right of belligerency remains.

Abe countered Ishiba’s proposal to delete the second paragraph.

“Politicians are not scholars or commentators,” Abe said. “They cannot be allowed to get away with only making the proper logical argument.”

Ishiba also criticized the Abenomics package of economic measures, saying, “No matter how much profits major companies make or how rich those who own stock become, those effects do not reach the outlying regions, small businesses and the agriculture and fisheries industries.”