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Japan election

Young Japanese lawmakers call for free vote in LDP leadership race

Rise of younger lawmakers challenges Japan's traditional backdoor deal-making

A group of young parliamentarians from the Liberal Democratic Party held a meeting at the party's headquarters on Sept. 7, calling for reforms ahead of the party's presidential election on Sept. 29.

TOKYO -- Junior lawmakers from Japan's governing Liberal Democratic Party have called for an open vote to determine who should succeed outgoing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga as party president, rather than backing the candidates endorsed by their faction bosses.

Their proposals reflect the young LDP lawmakers' desire to choose a new chief capable of leading the party to victory, especially ahead of the lower house election that will follow on the heels of the presidential race.

Traditionally, Japanese politics has been driven by factions led by heavyweight politicians. In past LDP presidential elections, the winning candidate was decided based on factional support. Suga won the election in September 2020 -- and thus the prime minister's post -- thanks to support from five of the party's seven factions.

But now that the party leadership, not factions, is responsible for distributing key posts and allocating campaign funds to party members, they feel little fealty to their faction leaders.

LDP members of the House of Representatives who have been elected three or fewer times now account for nearly half (46%) of all the party's lower house members. If they are allowed to vote freely, they will further weaken the influence of the factions.

Tatsuo Fukuda, a junior member of the lower house, and 69 fellow lawmakers gathered at the LDP's headquarters in Tokyo Tuesday and adopted a set of proposals for reform. Participants included people who took part online.

They stated that voting in the presidential election should respect the will of individual legislators and not be left to the discretion of factions. "Each lawmaker should think and vote. While gerontocracy and backroom politicking are often talked about, we junior lawmakers will demonstrate that we are working unwaveringly," Fukuda vowed.

Participants in Tuesday's gathering came from all seven LDP factions, including the biggest, led by former Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda -- to which former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe belongs. The second-largest faction, led by Finance Minister Taro Aso, was also represented at the meeting, as was a group headed by former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida. Kishida has already announced his candidacy in the presidential race. Fukuda belongs to the Hosoda faction

Most participants in the meeting have been elected to the Diet no more than three times. Many have yet to solidly support in their constituencies. Rather, they owe their seats to earlier public for the former Shinzo Abe cabinet, which enjoyed high approval rate and led the LDP victory in the previous six parliamentary elections.

But the political winds have shifted. Approval of Suga's cabinet dropped again at the end of August to 34%, the lowest since its formation, according to a Nikkei opinion poll. That figure is the second-lowest for an LDP cabinet since 2009, when Aso's short-lived government came to an end. The sagging poll numbers have raised anxieties among younger LDP lawmakers about their chances in the lower house election, which must be called by November.

But there are signs that the hold of the factions over lawmakers is weakening. The Hosoda and Aso factions are struggling to pick a candidate. The factions headed by Toshihiro Nikai, who currently serves as the LDP's secretary-general, and Nobuteru Ishihara, a former secretary-general, which had supported Suga, have yet to decide what to do now that the prime minister has decided not to run. This gives junior lawmakers freer rein to vote as they wish.

The presidential election campaign kicks off officially on Sept. 17. A total of 766 votes will be cast, including one vote for each of the 383 LDP Diet members and the same number of votes for rank-and-file party members. Diet members who have been elected three times or fewer have 126 votes, outnumbering the membership of the Hosoda faction.

Junior lawmakers have not singled out a candidate to support. Ahead of the lower house election, however, they may throw their weight behind a candidate who is popular with voters.

In a Nikkei survey that asked who should become the next president of LDP, Taro Kono, the incumbent minister for administrative and regulatory reform, was the top choice, at 16%, followed by Shigeru Ishiba, former secretary-general of the LDP, who was just a fraction of a point behind. Kishida was named by 13% of respondents.

Candidates for LDP presidency appear to be wooing young lawmakers. Announcing his candidacy at a news conference on Aug. 26, Kishida proposed a change to party rules to limit the terms of executives, excluding the president, to no more than three years. Kishida made the proposal in response to grumbling from junior lawmakers over Nikai's handling of party affairs. Nikai has been secretary-general for about five years.

Kono and former Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Sanae Takaichi, who have also thrown their hats into the ring, have not received solid support from any faction yet. To gain some of the votes up for grabs in the LDP, candidates are likely to say things the younger lawmakers want to hear, political analysts say.

In their set of reform proposals, the junior lawmakers stressed the importance of appointing younger members to key posts to avoid concentrating power in the hands of veteran Diet members who have served in important government and party posts for years.

The junior lawmakers also plan to propose that the factions say where they stand on national security and the economy to make the factions more policy-oriented groups, rather than personality driven. The proposals will be made public before the presidential election.

On Tuesday, the LDP announced an outline of the schedule for the presidential election, including a debate between candidates to answer questions from the public. The first debate of its kind for an LDP presidential election will be conducted online over four days, starting Sept. 23.

The debate will be held to create a direct dialogue between the LDP and the public, who do not have a vote in the party election, before the lower house contest. The LDP will set up a special website on Sept. 17 to solicit questions.

The four debates, which are expected to last 90 minutes each, will take up different themes, including measures to fight COVID-19, economic and fiscal policy, and foreign and national security policy.

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