TOKYO -- As Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe serves out his third and presumably final term, some members of his party are raising the possibility that he run a fourth time to ensure he retains enough influence to pursue his agenda.
Abe, whose term as head of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party ends in September 2021, is set to become Japan's longest-serving prime minister on Nov. 20 of this year, with 2,887 days in office -- including his briefer stint as the country's leader about 12 years ago.
The question of who should follow this record-breaking run arose Monday evening at a dinner Abe attended with LDP officials including policy chief Fumio Kishida and Seiko Noda, head of the budget committee in the Diet's lower house.
"Mr. Kishida is the next candidate for party chief, isn't he?" Abe said. Noda quickly replied that she was also an option, while Kishida remained silent.
Abe also asserted that he would not contest the next leadership election. Party rules already limit leaders to three consecutive three-year terms, but the prime minister raised the matter anyway in response to talk that he could run again.
This idea came from the LDP faction led by Toshihiro Nikai, the party's secretary-general. Nikai, who spearheaded the change to party rules that stretched the leadership limit to a third consecutive term, has hinted at numerous meetings that he would support another Abe bid.
Nikai has said he proposed a fourth term because it would be difficult for Abe to do so himself. Some in other factions think the secretary-general is angling to retain his position after the Diet's upper house election this summer. As for Abe, the prime minister has said it is "a little early" to talk about a fourth term.
Though Abe is set to serve for another two and a half more years, the LDP already is looking to the "post-Abe" landscape. After last fall's LDP leadership election, party members quickly set about evaluating possible successors.
"The four-term proposal is significant not because a fourth term would itself be important, but because it allows the prime minister to maintain his leadership and a free hand to run the government," a senior party official said.
The proposal also ties into whether and when Abe will dissolve the lower house for a general election. In 1986, the LDP won both the upper and lower houses in a landslide in same-day elections. Then-Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone afterward had his term extended by a year as an exception.
Playing his cards close to the vest on this question would help Abe keep his party in line.
The four-term proposal puts potential Abe successors like Kishida or former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba -- who ran unsuccessfully in the last leadership election -- in a tricky position. If Abe stays beyond 2021, they could find themselves passed over in favor of the next generation. Yet it is difficult for them to openly deny the possibility of keeping the prime minister in power, lest they lose their chance anyway.