LDP endorsement battle leaves trail of resentment in Yamaguchi

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A closely watched battle between two former Cabinet ministers for endorsement by Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party as official party candidate for the Oct. 31 general election ended with a decision that pushed one of them into retirement.

In Yamaguchi Prefecture’s No. 3 constituency, former education minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, 60, will run on the LDP ticket for a seat in the Lower House in the coming election, in a bid to switch from the Upper House.

Hayashi was chosen over former Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura, 78, who has represented the LDP in the constituency for many years.

The decision by LDP executives avoided splitting votes for the party between the two heavyweights in the single-seat constituency. But the settlement is far from amicable, with resentment simmering on the side of the ousted party veteran.

Prime minister candidate

“We’ll face the first verdict of the people under the government of Prime Minister (Fumio) Kishida,” Hayashi said in an address to a campaign kickoff rally for the LDP in Ube, Yamaguchi, on Tuesday, the first day of official campaigning for the general election. “I can’t afford to lose as I’m one of the party members behind the creation of the (Kishida) government. I’ll fight it out,” he continued, raising his voice.

On the stage, Kawamura and party officials close to him were conspicuous in their absence.

Hayashi, the eldest son of former Finance Minister Yoshiro Hayashi, is known as one of the top policy mavens in the LDP. The younger Hayashi’s unusual record of having served as a Cabinet minister five times despite being a member of the lesser chamber of the Diet suggests that the party has a deep trust in him.

Since around 2008, Hayashi has been exploring the possibility of switching to the all-important Lower House, setting his sights on the post of prime minister.

When he was appointed education minister in 2017, Hayashi told then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that he would not accept a Cabinet post the next time as he was preparing for the next Lower House election, according to a prefectural assembly member who backs Hayashi. But Hayashi stopped short of running in the 2017 Lower House election.

The number of Lower House seats allocated to Yamaguchi is expected to be reduced by one to three, effective from the Lower House election after the coming poll, due to a redrawing of the electoral map to correct vote-value disparities. In effect, the Oct. 31 election is the last opportunity for Hayashi to change over to the Lower House.

In the prefectural assembly, Chairman Shungaku Yanai led efforts to rally support behind Hayashi. In July, Yanai drew up a letter pledging support for Hayashi with the signatures of 26 LDP assembly members, while putting pressure on party subchapters in the prefecture for backing.

The LDP Yamaguchi prefectural chapter’s switching of support from Kawamura to Hayashi is believed to reflect its fundamental attitude to politics.

Yamaguchi is a conservative fiefdom that has produced eight prime ministers, including Abe, in the past, the most among all 47 prefectures.

“In Yamaguchi, we don’t need a candidate who can’t become prime minister,” a prefectural assembly member in the Hayashi camp said.

Power balance shifts in LDP

On Oct. 13, the day before the Lower House was dissolved for the coming election, Kawamura entered the office of LDP Secretary-General Akira Amari in the party’s headquarters building in Tokyo. Amari and Toshiaki Endo, chairman of the LDP Election Strategy Committee, called on Kawamura to give up running in the Lower House election.

Within the day, Kawamura returned to Yamaguchi to inform his supporters that he had been advised by the party to retire, and he asked for their opinions. He wore a bland look on his face, but “in his heart, he must have been seething,” one participant in the meeting said.

Some supporters insisted that he should go ahead with filing his candidacy and run in the election as an independent, but in the end all agreed to leave the decision to Kawamura.

Initially, Kawamura intended to square off against Hayashi for party endorsement on the strength of the backing of Amari’s predecessor, Toshihiro Nikai, who held sway over the LDP as secretary-general during the time of the governments of Abe and his immediate successor, Yoshihide Suga. Kawamura is a senior member of the LDP faction led by Nikai.

After Kishida’s victory in the LDP presidential election in September, however, Nikai was relieved from the powerful post, sharply eroding his influence and knocking the wind out of Kawamura’s sails.

By contrast, the inauguration of Kishida as LDP president and prime minister put Hayashi, a member of the Kishida faction, in the pole position.

“Nikai would not have made such a decision. We lost a wonderful politician against our will,” a prefectural assembly member close to Kawamura said.

To the further dismay of the Kawamura camp, Kenichi Kawamura, the eldest son of Kawamura, was placed on the LDP’s proportional representation list in Kita-Kanto, a region to which the younger Kawamura has little connection, not the Chugoku region, which includes Yamaguchi.

“At any cost, I will come back to my hometown,” Kenichi Kawamura said in a campaign kickoff party in Hagi, Yamaguchi, on Wednesday, his voice hoarse.

But it seems the Kawamuras face strong head winds.

The LDP’s Yamaguchi prefectural chapter has raised objections against the party headquarters’ initial proposal to put the younger Kawamura on the proportional representation list in the Chugoku region. The chapter sent a letter of protest in the name of Nobuo Kishi, head of the chapter.

In the Yamaguchi No. 3 constituency, opposition parties have fielded Fumiko Sakamoto, 66, of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan as their unified candidate.

“I want to win (the election) as a representative of citizens,” she said.

Sakamoto aims to break through in the conservative stronghold with calls for a uniform nationwide minimum hourly wage of ¥1,500 and a higher food self-sufficiency rate.

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