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Politics

Abe freezes out rival while promoting alternative successors

Ex-Foreign Minister Kishida and trade negotiator Motegi kept close to center

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, front center, seems to have begun succession planning.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe carefully packed cabinet and party leadership posts with allies and potential successors while shunning his longtime rival as he tries to shape the political landscape for the post-Abe era.

"I tried to give chances to as many people as possible," Abe told a press conference Tuesday, referring to the cabinet reshuffle.

While campaigning for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party presidential election, in which former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba was the lone challenger, Abe expressed no interest in paving the way for a handpicked successor. "Leaders make themselves," Abe had said. But he has apparently moved to thwart Ishiba's rise in light of the rival's relatively strong showing in the Sept. 20 vote.

On the contrary, former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida has remained in Abe's good graces. Kishida had considered running himself to lead the LDP and so was late to support Abe in the race. Those close to the prime minister had initially urged him to exclude Kishida from cabinet and party posts, but he was kept on as LDP policy research chief.

Toshimitsu Motegi is also seen as a promising candidate to succeed Abe. In addition to his portfolio as economic revitalization minister, Abe on Tuesday put him in charge of reforming the social welfare system to benefit all generations. Motegi helped win votes for the prime minister among one of the biggest factions within the LDP, even as its leader, Wataru Takeshita, leaned toward Ishiba.

"This could be the dawn of the Kishida-Motegi era," Abe had told aides after the leadership vote.

Abe picked Katsunobu Kato to replace Takeshita to head the LDP General Council, one of the top three party posts. Kato was appointed deputy chief cabinet secretary back in 2012 and has since served in multiple ministerial positions. By installing Motegi and Kato in key posts, Abe will be able to keep a closer leash on the Takeshita faction, many of whose upper house members voted for Ishiba.

Justice Minister Takashi Yamashita was the only member of the Ishiba faction to get a seat in the cabinet. Picking a younger lawmaker over longtime veterans may have been a deliberate attempt to sow discord within the group, but Ishiba told reporters on Tuesday that "there is no cause for concern."

Party rules allow the LDP president to serve up to three consecutive terms, meaning that Abe will step down in September 2021 at the latest. He is placing loyalists in visible roles to see what cream rises to the top.

None of Abe's likely successors -- from Kishida to Foreign Minister Taro Kono -- come from his own faction. By recruiting people from various factions and letting them compete, Abe could be ensuring his continued influence after his departure from the top post.

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