In Race for Power in Japan, Election Rules are Half the Battle

Leaders of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party will meet Tuesday to formulate rules for a vote to replace Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a process that will go a long way in determining who comes out on top.

The party’s general council will meet around 10 a.m., though it’s unclear when it will announce the outcome. Some leaders have told local media the election will either be Sept. 14 or 15, with a new prime minister selected by parliament on Sept. 17.

Abe’s abrupt decision last week to step down after nearly eight years due to a health problem left the party scrambling to find a new leader in about two weeks. Whoever wins will have no more than a year to try and revive Japan’s economy from a pandemic-induced contraction before calling a fresh general election against a recently unified opposition.

The most crucial decision on Tuesday is how much power sitting lawmakers will have in the voting process compared with local party officials. If the lawmakers come out stronger, it’s more likely that Abe’s right-hand man — Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga — will emerge as a consensus choice for continuity.

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During the last ruling party vote in 2018, ballots were divided evenly between members of parliament and rank-and-file officials, with each getting 394 votes for 788 in total. Due to calls for an expedited process, the vote could this time be tilted with 394 for lawmakers, and 141 for local officials: three for each of the party’s 47 prefecture chapters.

Stacking the vote with sitting lawmakers would benefit a network of party bosses and personality-based internal factions. The groups, each with its own leader and agenda, battle within the party for top posts and policy priorities.

That could hurt former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba, the most popular candidate in opinion surveys of the general public. Ishiba, who has backed policies for rural development, won a rank-and-file vote over Abe in 2012 but lost the overall race.

Suga doesn’t belong to any faction but is seeing growing support from two of the biggest factions, including one led by party Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, which combined have about 100 lawmakers as members, the Nikkei newspaper reported. Another major faction led by Finance Minister Taro Aso, which has 54 members, is ready to back Suga, Kyodo News reported, citing sources familiar with the matter.

Abe leads the biggest faction with nearly 100 members. Although the group hasn’t endorsed a candidate, it’s expected members would lean toward Abe’s top lieutenant over a candidate from a rival group.

Ishiba leads his own faction, but it has only 19 members. Another potential contender Fumio Kishida, a former foreign minister, leads a faction with 47.

Most of the party officials mentioned as successors said they will announce whether to run after the LDP sets the rules for the vote at its Tuesday meeting.

— With assistance by Takashi Hirokawa, Chloe Whiteaker, and Isabel Reynolds

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