Photo/Illutration The Liberal Democratic Party's headquarters building in Tokyo's Nagatacho district (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Where is a critical review of the long-lived administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that has lasted for seven years and eight months? Where is debate on “post-coronavirus” forms of society and the economy to come?

All these matters have been set aside, and faction-centered maneuvers for winning over a majority of votes are all the rage. One could say too much priority is being given to an inward-looking way of thinking.

The race to elect a new president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, who will succeed Abe as Japan’s leader, is still in a preparatory stage, but the development has already converged on three viable figures: Yoshihide Suga, chief Cabinet secretary; Fumio Kishida, chairman of the LDP Policy Research Council; and Shigeru Ishiba, former LDP secretary-general.

The LDP’s Nikai faction, led by party Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, was the first to decide to back Suga, who does not belong to any faction. The Hosoda faction, the largest intraparty group where Abe hails from, and the Aso faction, the second largest, have also followed suit.

Against that backdrop, the LDP was expected to decide on Sept. 1 how it will have its new president elected. Nikai, who was entrusted by Abe to handle the matter, was set to adopt the simplified format of electing a new party leader at a joint plenary meeting of LDP lawmakers from both chambers of the Diet.

That format goes without the procedure of voting by the LDP’s rank-and-file members and “fraternity members” across Japan and only allows the lawmakers and representatives of the party’s prefectural chapters to cast ballots.

The LDP’s rules certainly say that its president can be elected at a joint plenary meeting of lawmakers from both Diet chambers “when there is a particularly urgent need.” That format was adopted, for example, when Abe resigned from his first stint as prime minister in 2007 and when Yasuo Fukuda, his successor, stepped down in 2008.

But the situation does not appear to be so urgent that a new president must be elected in a rush at the cost of taking away the voting rights, which are key rights, of the party’s rank-and-file members.

The Diet is currently out of session. While there remains an urgent need to deal with the COVID-19 crisis, Abe, at his news conference where he announced his resignation, outlined additional measures for autumn and winter to prevent a gap in policy actions against the pandemic.

Abe will remain in his duties until he hands them over to his successor, so it appears unlikely there would be a serious political vacuum.

It appears the party leadership want to shun voting by rank-and-file party members to diminish the strength of Ishiba, who put up a good fight in provincial voting during past LDP presidential races, and determine the outcome solely through the art of forming alliances among the party’s lawmakers.

The LDP leadership should listen to the broad gamut of calls from the party’s rank-and-file members and friends, who are closer to the general electorate, all the more because concerns and discontent are rising among the public about the government’s response to the coronavirus crisis.

Doing so would also help strengthen the political base of the next prime minister.

The LDP’s junior lawmakers and local chapters are calling for voting by all party members. The party leadership should take seriously the sense of alarm rising among the rank and file, who are concerned about a deviation from the popular will.

The coming party presidential election is not just about who will succeed Abe as prime minister. It is also about assessing the merits and demerits of the unusually long-running administration and about reflecting on what policies to continue from it, what needs to be set right and how to achieve these corrections.

Those questions should be asked not just about the administration’s policies on domestic and diplomatic affairs at large but also about its political stance, the way it has dealt with Diet affairs and the way it has faced the public.

Two options lie ahead: either to allow intraparty factions to take the lead as they have always done, or allow free and open-minded debate to take place before the public.

The LDP itself is facing a rigorous test of its responsibility as the ruling party.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Sept. 1