Surprisingly the race includes none of the candidates who Aso defeated to win the job last year: Ishiba Shigeru, despite being perhaps the most enthusiastic of the potential candidates, backed down earlier this week as Tanigaki Sadakazu gathered support from party elders.
Tanigaki, at sixty-four the oldest candidate in the race, faces two forty-six-year-old rivals, Kono Taro and Nishimura Yasutoshi. Kono is the articulate, intelligent, American-educated son of now-retired LDP elder statesman Kono Yohei; Nishimura is a three-term representative from Hyogo and former METI official. Neither of the younger candidates has ministerial experience, although Kono is renown for his policy expertise and has been parliamentary vice ministery of justice as well as chairman of the lower house foreign affairs committee (and has served five terms to Nishimura’s three). Nishimura meanwhile is a former Machimura faction member, but half of his endorsements came from Machimura faction members.
As a result the race is not surprisingly being cast as a clash of generations: Tanigaki, not necessarily old but older and backed by the party’s old guard, against Kono, scion of an old LDP family but brimming with policy ideas and reformist zeal, with Nishimura unlikely to cut into Kono’s vote. For his part Tanigaki is trying to bridge generations by presenting himself as the most viable reform candidate, not the cat’s paw of the factions.
The race is more unpredictable than it appeared after Tanigaki entered the race with the backing of senior party leaders, because the race will be decided not by the party’s 199 Diet members but by the 300 votes wielded by prefectural chapters. A Yomiuri poll found Tanigaki and Kono running virtually even, with Tanigaki leading Kono 34% to 33%, with Nishmura receiving the support of a mere 2%. (Yamamoto Ichita, a Kono supporter, is heartened by these numbers.)
Were Kono to win, it would be a sign that LDP supporters are ready for the party to move in a new direction, even if the party’s Diet members are more reluctant to do so. But electing Kono is also risky. While he would no doubt be more enthusiastic about reorganizing the party — for example along the lines proposed by the party revival council, which most notably called for the end of factions despite having said it would soften its position on the factions — he would probably have a harder time than Tanigaki getting party elders to commit to even modest reforms. He may be a more formidable challenger for the DPJ on policy terms, given Kono’s policy expertise and seeing as how Tanigaki may be closest to the DPJ in terms of policy preferences. But it is difficult to see how Kono could succeed in remaking a party that after the election is top heavy in terms of the ratio of old to young. It would be all too easy party elders to resist Kono when it comes to fundamental reform. The election of Kono would bear at least superficial resemblance to the DPJ’s election of Maehara Seiji following the disastrous 2005 election — resulting in Maehara’s equally disastrous stint as party leader. Kono would not necessarily make the same political errors that doomed Maehara, but he would likely face even more daunting obstacles than Maehara faced.
A majority of the public expects that the LDP will be able to fix itself and remain the second pole in a two-party system. The problem in the party leadership election is that while Kono’s election would have greater symbolism as a break with the past (despite his lineage), Tanigaki might be more capable of moving the LDP even modestly in a new direction. Nevertheless, LDP members have two good choices before them, and both represent a step forward for a party that in recent years has been characterized mostly by its distance from the concerns of the Japanese people.