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Abe in need of landslide to keep grip on party

Prime minister confirms bid for another term as LDP leader

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, right, speaks in Yamaguchi Prefecture as his rival Shigeru Ishiba speaks in Tottori Prefecture, both on Saturday. 

TOKYO -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made clear on Saturday that he is seeking another term as ruling party leader, setting up what looks to be a one-on-one contest with former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba.

While all indications point to an Abe win, the prime minister needs an overwhelming victory to avoid losing momentum for his policy agenda.

"The purpose with which I ran six years ago has not changed in the slightest," Abe told a rally in his western Japan constituency of Yamaguchi.

Abe's camp envisions winning at least 70% of the 810 votes up for grabs in the September election. "We can't just win," a person in Abe's inner circle said. "It has to be a landslide."

As in 2012, his opponent for leadership of the Liberal Democratic Party will be Ishiba, who announced his candidacy on Friday. Ishiba forced a runoff last time, and he told his own supporters Saturday that this is a "must win" election to move Japan into a new era.

The LDP leadership race will be a battle for 810 votes, split evenly between 405 members of parliament and 405 party members and supporters in the regions. (Photo by Uichiro Kasai)

Priorities like amending the constitution and passing economic reforms meant to conquer deflation require deep reserves of political capital. At Saturday's rally, Abe reiterated his goal of adding an explicit reference to Self-Defense Forces in Article 9 of Japan's pacifist constitution.

Abe's margin of victory would also affect Japan's foreign policy. The prime minister's team believes he needs a strong new mandate to hold his own against U.S. President Donald Trump and defend Japan's interests in potential negotiations with North Korea.

On trade, a weak result against Ishiba would also leave Abe exposed to criticism from rural areas already upset with his Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiating. In the 2017 general election, the LDP lost in about half of single-seat districts in three northern prefectures that depend on farming. If the U.S. forces Japan to negotiate a bilateral free trade agreement, the Trump administration would surely demand concessions that hit Japanese farmers.

Abe will formally declare his candidacy later this month. The LDP changed its rules earlier this year which allowed him to run for a third consecutive three-year term. 

The 810 voters in play are split evenly between LDP members of parliament and party members and supporters in the regions. 

Abe already looks assured of receiving about 70% of LDP lawmakers' votes, based on the size of the party factions that support him. But his camp sees a danger of Ishiba taking the lion's share of regional ballots, as he did in the first round of voting in 2012, when five candidates ran. In a one-on-one race, the stakes would be higher.

Abe needs to win convincingly to avoid becoming a lame duck. A victory would keep him in office until September 2021 -- but the attention within the LDP would quickly shift from him to his potential successor.

"We don't want to see Ishiba pick up 100 votes from LDP lawmakers," an Abe supporter said. 

Ishiba's camp aims to win at least 40% of regional ballots. The ex-minister reckons that would make him a force that Abe could not ignore ahead of next spring's nationwide local elections and the summer's upper house poll.

As for LDP members of parliament, Ishiba can count on the 20 votes of his own faction and about 20 more from upper house members of another faction. He hopes that tapping into a vein of dissent against Abe will win him more.

"There is unspoken criticism of the prime minister smoldering" within the party, said Ishiba, who appears to be positioning himself as less eager than Abe for constitutional change.

In announcing his candidacy, Ishiba also struck a different tone on economic policy, saying "our finances must be sound." This contrasts with Abe's emphasis on growth as the top priority. It also appears to align him with younger LDP lawmakers, notably rising star Shinjiro Koizumi, who have spoken out against passing the cost of today's entitlement spending to future generations.

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