TOKYO -- A decisive win for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party in Sunday's lower house election gives him a secure foothold from which to seek another term as party leader next year -- and lengthens the odds for those looking to replace him.
With the LDP's majority in the Diet's lower house secure, Abe appears set to run for a third consecutive three-year term as party chief in September 2018. If he wins re-election to that post and serves through September 2021, Abe would become Japan's longest-serving prime minister, unless his party somehow loses power.
But Abe likely will face some challenge from rivals in the party election next year. Veteran lawmaker Shigeru Ishiba, who has squared off against Abe in the past, indicated he might throw his hat in the ring. The former LDP secretary-general left his post as regional revitalization minister when the cabinet was shuffled in summer 2016, putting a good deal of distance between himself and the Abe government since then.
"I would have to be crystal clear about what I want to do, to make sure that I can win policy debates against anyone," Ishiba said in a television appearance Sunday evening. He seemingly holds enough support to at least mount a campaign, as all lawmakers in Ishiba's wing of the LDP won their election bids Sunday. He also may be able to capture support from party rank and file as well as outside backers: Ishiba received more votes from them than Abe during his fierce but failed LDP presidential campaign in September 2012.
Yet even former LDP lawmakers at odds with Abe see no justification in replacing a prime minister who wins every election. Those close to Ishiba worry the lawmaker could struggle to draw attention for some time after another decisive election victory under Abe.
Fumio Kishida, former foreign minister turned LDP policy chief, is seen as another potential contender in the party election next September. Though he belongs to a different party faction and leans toward a different political ideology than Abe, Kishida has consistently supported the prime minister and likely will remain a key figure in the Abe government. Some suspect the two politicians have reached a pact for a smooth transfer of power down the road.
Kishida refrained from commenting on his plans, saying Sunday that "in the political realm, it is unwise to speak of what is to come a year hence, given a wide range of uncertainties." If Abe's influence among his party holds, Kishida's record of support for the prime minister would make a challenge tough to justify. He is unlikely to make such a move under this scenario. As Kishida has said before, "when you go to battle, you have to win."
Seiko Noda, who failed to gather enough support to challenge Abe's 2015 re-election, has taken a similar tack since being appointed internal affairs minister in August, preferring to raise her profile from within the government. Though Noda has indicated she intends to run for party chief next year, she lacks a strong base of support, as she is affiliated with no particular party faction.
Changing of the guard
Abe's strong prospects for 2018 could spur these aspiring successors to wait for the September 2021 race. But Ishiba, Kishida and Noda all would be in their 60s at that time, and may have lost their appeal as change-makers.
In that case, the next generation of LDP leadership could come into play. Shinjiro Koizumi, chief deputy secretary-general and son of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, is by far the best recognized of this group. He traveled across Japan to stump for the LDP ahead of Sunday's race, and his recent comments suggest a vision for Japan extending beyond the current government. Koizumi, in a television appearance Sunday evening, called it "extremely important to think ahead, beyond Abenomics" when crafting national policy.
"While I will always remain humble, one cannot sweep the proverbial floors forever," Koizumi has said. Sources close to him see "a fair chance" that he will make a run in September 2021.
Foreign Minister Taro Kono also is viewed as a contender. Kono demurred when asked about his desire for party leadership, saying he preferred "to focus on doing my current job well" and "take things one step at a time." But a Foreign Ministry official noted that Kono's father, former lower house speaker Yohei Kono, progressed from foreign minister to party chief, saying his son likely has similar ambitions.