Abe's power play: 'Uncontested re-election' rumoured

Reverberations of a crushing victory in the House of Representatives election were still lingering on Dec. 19, when ruling Liberal Democratic Party member and former minister in charge of financial policy Yuji Yamamoto visited the Prime Minister's Office.

There Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had magnanimous words for him: "The LDP is vigorous because we compete inside the party. It is because there is a severe competition over personnel matters or whatever else."

The LDP has won by large margins in the two lower house elections and one House of Councillors election in the last three years.

There are rumours that Abe could further increase his central hold on power in the party and that his bid for reelection as party president in September could be decided without a vote.

As if to dispel such an atmosphere, Abe told Yamamoto, "Don't decide from the outset that no other candidates will appear."

Yamamoto is a close aide to Shigeru Ishiba, minister for vitalizing local economies. The prime minister's words to Yamamoto were also directed at Ishiba, who is viewed as the strongest "post-Abe" candidate.

Before the lower house election last year, the prime minister was asked by a Diet member close to him about "future party presidential candidates." Abe offered three names: Ishiba, Yuko Obuchi and Shinjiro Koizumi.

When Obuchi resigned as economy, trade, and industry minister over a money-and-politics scandal, the post of party president slipped out of her reach.

At age 33, Koizumi is seen as "still young." In other words, it is Ishiba who comes the closest.

However, it would be difficult for Ishiba to run in the next party presidential election. This is because when the prime minister is seeking reelection, it is unreasonable for a Cabinet minister - whose role is to support the prime minister - to run as a rival candidate.

Those close to Ishiba have unanimously insisted that "It is not that he will not run, but that he cannot run," and paid no need to Abe's remarks, saying, "Mr. Ishiba will not react to the prime minister's provocative words."

Ishiba's own focus has been on supporting Abe. At a press conference on March 6, he responded to the view that a rival candidate entering the party presidential election would energize the party, saying, "If the current person is suitable and there is no one else, then [an uncontested vote] should not be considered entirely negative."

Three years ago, Ishiba had the bitter experience of coming out on top in terms of local votes in the party presidential election, only to have the tables turned on him by Abe in the deciding vote by Diet members.

In terms of influence with regional organisations and party members, Ishiba leads among LDP lawmakers.

Since assuming the ministerial post, he has energetically visited many places around the country, saying, "I enjoy touring to promote efforts to realise local government initiatives." According to an aide to Ishiba, he seems to be preparing for his moment to arrive.

Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, a liberal presidential hopeful, supports Abe's foreign policy of "proactive contribution to peace" and has maintained a low profile.

Voices inside the party have called for LDP Secretary General Sadakazu Tanigaki to take over the reins of leadership. But Tanigaki turned 70 on March 7, and his repeated remark that "We must cultivate talented young people" offers no signs of such ambitions.

Under such circumstances, former LDP General Council Chairwoman Seiko Noda is the only one seen to be taking action with the party presidential election in mind.

"I am in no position to get lost in short-sighted ambitions and say something pushy like 'I want a Cabinet post!'" cried Noda at a party on Feb. 8 in her hometown of Gifu, drawing laughter from those in attendance. Noda lost her job in a reshuffle of party executives.

Young LDP Diet members in the audience cheered, "There's only one spot left for her to aim for," and burst into applause.

In discussions on the right of collective self-defence, differences of opinion between her and the prime minister became clear. Recently, she publicly stated, "He is leaning to the right," intensifying her criticism of Abe.

Noda has not hidden her desire to run in the party presidential election, saying, "It is also important for people with different stances to run so that people understand there is diversity within the LDP."

She holds a weekly lunch meeting with about 10 Diet members who are close to her, including former Defence Minister Yasukazu Hamada. However, she has no support from a party faction, so it will be no easy task to secure 20 LDP lawmakers to recommend her for the presidential race.

Can anything put a stop to Abe's "uncontested reelection"? As soon as the ordinary Diet session ends, the curtain will rise in the presidential race.

Fostering 'successors'

Preceding long-running administrations built a strong political system by appointing talented people who could lead the next generation and letting them compete against each other.

In the longest administration of the postwar period - that of former Prime Minister Eisaku Sato - Takeo Miki, Kakuei Tanaka, Masayoshi Ohira, Takeo Fukuda and Yasuhiro Nakasone came to the fore, and each later took their own turn in the prime minister's seat.

Shintaro Abe, Noboru Takeshita and Kiichi Miyazawa, who were all appointed to high posts in the Nakasone administration, nicknamed themselves "new leaders," while the administration of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi placed Taro Aso, Ya-suo Fukuda, and Shinzo Abe in important roles.

Fostering the next generation of leaders is also one of the missions of a prime minister.