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Abe's dogmatic leadership style put to test in LDP race

Candidates offer little of substance as focus shifts away from policy

TOKYO -- Though Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is widely considered a shoo-in to win yet another term at the ruling party's helm, his aggressive political tactics have become a major flashpoint both within and beyond the party.

Both the market and political experts expect Abe to win a third consecutive term as president of the Liberal Democratic Party on Sept. 20. He is believed to have the votes of about 70% of the party's 405 lawmakers at the national level. But local party members and affiliates -- representing the other 405 votes -- are much less enthusiastic.

"I have concerns, but right now Mr. Abe is our only option," one regional LDP member said.

In addition to alleged cronyism involving two school operators run by his friends, Abe has been criticized for his overt hostility toward opposition parties in parliamentary sessions and using his power to call snap elections to keep a tight leash on his party.

More recently, a close aide to Abe suggested that former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, who himself was considering a run for the top post, and his supporters be blacklisted for not immediately supporting Abe's bid. While the comment did not come directly from the prime minister, politicians were nonetheless alarmed by the cavalier threat.

Former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba, expected to be Abe's only competition, painted himself as a clear alternative when he officially announced his candidacy on Aug. 10. "I aim to win the people's understanding, sympathy and trust through my approach to politics," he said. "Otherwise, I wouldn't be able to rewrite Japan's map for the future."

The LDP race was initially expected to focus on specific policy points, especially after Ishiba published a book in July outlining his political philosophy. But he adopted a new catchphrase this month -- "honest and fair" -- shifting the spotlight to Abe's heavy-handed methods.

Neither Abe nor Ishiba have discussed in detail what they plan to do should they win. Abe told party members at a dinner last week that he planned to continue Abenomics, explaining he wanted "to maintain the current trend to kick-start the economy."

He also said he was focused on public works, but did not comment on deregulation -- the third pillar of his signature economic policy, which has failed to truly take off.

Meanwhile, Ishiba in his book called for a change of course. "Instead of forever relying on stimulus, we need to think about a prescription for our country's economic and financial problems," he wrote. He called for measures to pump up regional economies, but did not offer specifics.

The candidates have also failed to present a comprehensive plan for Japan's welfare system, which is under strain from a rapidly aging population. Ishiba wants to offer incentives to encourage healthier living as a way to curb related outlays, but it is unclear what this would look like.

"We need to transform our social welfare so it benefits all generations," Abe said in an Aug. 12 speech. He plans to offer free child care from October 2019, to coincide with a planned hike in the consumption tax rate, yet he has put off necessary cuts to elderly benefits.

Still, Abe has made undeniable contributions as prime minister. Nominal gross domestic product came to roughly 549 trillion yen ($4.97 trillion) in fiscal 2017. The ratio of job seekers to open positions hit 1.62 in June, from under 1 about a year prior. Big companies agreed to raise base wages by more than 2% this spring for the fifth straight year.

In the diplomatic arena, Abe has established a rapport with U.S. President Donald Trump, with whom many other leaders have struggled to connect. Strong ties with Washington are key to containing North Korea, whose nuclear and conventional missiles pose a direct threat to Japan's security.

Abe is now also the second longest-serving leader in the Group of Seven after German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and his opinion is often sought out at international gatherings.

"He is accomplishing more now than ever, which is what makes this so hard," a regional LDP official said. The leadership race is shaping up less as a debate on policy, and more as an appraisal of Abe's last five and a half years as Japan's leader.

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