Now that the fourth and last of the heirloom turkeys (Shinzo Abe, Yasuo Fukuda, Taro Aso, and now Sadakazu Tanigaki) that succeeded Junichiro Koizumi as the head of the LDP is being abandoned without even being allowed to contest for the prime minister’s office, the LDP will be picking from five prospective candidates; three of them serious, two less so.
Whoever wins the first round (300 prefectural chapter votes and 200 Diet member votes for a total of 500 votes) should win even if a second round runoff between the top two finishers (with only the 200 Diet members voting) becomes necessary, unless the top two are so close that the second-place finisher can collaborate with the other candidates to convince enough Diet members to vote from him for a majority in the head-to-head. I’d take 1-2 odds on Ishihara winning the LDP election and 1-1 odds on his going all the way to prime minister. Shigeru Ishiba also has a chance. The other serious candidate is… Shinzo Abe.
Maybe I’m missing something, given the persistent support that Abe enjoys from LDP’s more conservative members, but a) this is no time to trot out a failed retread; b) he never distinguished himself in any of the positions that he held after he gained national recognition by (often literally) standing with the abductees and their families; and c) his signature messages on education and constitutional reform do not resonate with the public’s real concerns. (Education, certainly, but the public wants to bring it into the 21st Century, not take it back to the 19th. Constitutional reform, maybe, but fixing the Diet sound better than flags and anthems.) I don’t think that the LDP is klutzy enough to score an own goal.
The other two candidates are Nobutaka Machimura and Yoshimasa Hayashi. Machimura, like me, is a former METI official and has been nice to me and everyone else on the occasions that I’ve been around him and has no significant blemishes on his record of public service. However, at 67 (like Tanigaki) and with limited public acceptance, he is unlikely to be seen by a majority of the LDP rank-and-file and/or Diet members as the appropriate face of the LDP for the looming lower house election. As for Yoshimasa Hayashi, he’s stuck in the upper house, which is a no-starter, now into his third term from Yamaguchi Prefecture. He refused to challenge a DPJ lower house incumbent in Yamaguchi District 2 and failed to convince the 69 year old LDP incumbent in Yamaguchi District 3 to step down for him. And he expects to lead Japan? I think that this guy needs a reality check.
Incidentally, I don’t think that Ishihara will make a good prime minister. Everyone likes him, or at least does not actively dislike him, but that will not be enough in running a coalition, or heaven forbid a minority, government. He has an impressive résumé of choice party assignments and cabinet positions but, like Abe, he has failed to distinguish himself on any of those occasions if memory serves me correctly. I believe that his personable character, the Ishihara glamour (the closet thing that we have to the Kennedy charm; Shinjiro Koizumi’s talents are genuine, I believe), and, within the LDP itself, the need to keep his father the Governor Shintaro Ishihara from pissing into the LDP tent have helped keep his career buoyant till now. But the prime minister’s office is a whole different game. Ishiba by contrast projects clarity, conviction, and consistency, qualities that the public will reward him for with more tolerance for failure and more points for effort: currencies that will be very much in demand in dealing with a fractious Diet.
One last thing, and this should be the matter of greatest concern for many of you out there. All of these candidates, including the superannuated Machimura, are significantly to the right of Sadakazu Tanigaki with regard to external affairs. It’s still pretty mild compared to the rest of the East Asia political scene, but it is clearly noticeable. I’m not saying that it should be a matter of immediate concern for East Asia relations—remember how Abe reaffirmed the Kono Statement then went blank after the flap over his comments in an NYT Norimitsu Onishi article—but it’s definitely something to keep an eye on.