Photo/IllutrationPrime Minister Shinzo Abe, center, who is also the president of the Liberal Democratic Party, and other LDP officials raise their fists at a party convention in Tokyo’s Minato Ward on Feb. 10. (Wataru Sekita)

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party on Feb. 10 held its first party convention since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was re-elected to a third term as party president last autumn.

This is the Year of the Boar in the Chinese 12-animal zodiac, when in Japan both spring unified local elections and a summer Upper House poll are held once every 12 years.

In his address to the party convention, Abe stressed his determination to lead the party to victory in both elections.

But he only made a brief and perfunctory reference to the faulty labor data scandal that has engulfed the labor ministry, which has become the focus of debate in the current regular Diet session. He only made vague promises of a “thorough inspection” into the matter and “all-out efforts to prevent a recurrence.”

In last year’s party convention, Abe apologized for the Finance Ministry’s falsifications of official documents concerning the questionable sale of state-owned land to Moritomo Gakuen. But the core question of why the land was sold to the Osaka-based school operator at a deeply discounted price remains unanswered.

If he wants to galvanize party members and supporters who will face harsh political headwinds in the elections, Abe needs to grapple with the challenge of restoring public confidence in politics.

The credibility of his administration has been seriously damaged by a series of scandals that also include one involving Kake Educational Institution, another school operator linked to the prime minister.

At the party convention, Abe expressed afresh his enthusiasm about pursuing his proposal to amend Article 9 of the Constitution to codify the constitutional status of the Self-Defense Forces.

But the LDP has clearly become lukewarm about supporting Abe’s constitutional initiative.

In his New Year's news conference in early January, Abe said he is not trying to achieve the goal in a set time frame. He should act true to his word and stop his political rush toward the first amendment to the postwar Constitution.

In the autumn LDP presidential election, former party Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba was the only challenger to Abe’s continued leadership even though the evils of his dominant, unchallenged political power were clearly visible.

Five of the seven party factions readily supported Abe’s re-election bid. The time for policy debate during the leadership race was limited due partly to a natural disaster.

The LDP election painted the grim picture of a party devoid of political energy for candid and lively discussions on key policy issues and controlled by one man’s political agenda.

Recently, it was revealed that senior members of the six LDP factions, excluding the Ishiba group, secretly dined with Abe at the Prime Minister’s Official Residence.

Such a blatant snub to Ishiba, despite Abe’s declaration of “no sides” after the party leadership election, will only intimidate LDP politicians into the now-notorious “sontaku” practice of acting to accommodate the assumed wishes and intentions of the powerful leader.

The string of scandals involving the government that has come to light in recent years has raised serious questions about the Diet’s ability to monitor and check the administrative branch.

Unfortunately, the current LDP cannot be expected to serve as a powerful internal watchdog of the administration.

During the party convention, the prospective party candidates for the Upper House poll were announced.

Women accounted for only six of the 49 candidates for constituencies and four of the 30 candidates for the proportional representation section. There is one new face for each segment.

The Diet has unanimously passed a lawmaker-sponsored bill to require political parties to make as much effort as possible to bring the numbers of their male and female candidates closer together.

But the LDP’s roster of candidates shows no sign of effort toward gender equality.

If it deems itself a “national party,” the LDP should not weaken its commitment to paying serious attention to diverse opinions among the public and maintaining a flexible system to ensure, through open debate, that its policies reflect this diversity.

If it continues allowing itself to be colored solely by Abe’s political views, the LDP cannot fulfill this responsibility.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 12