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Politics

Abe's rival to declare bid to become Japan's next leader

In upcoming book, Ishiba attacks Japanese prime minister's economic policy

Former Japanese Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba, left, is challenging Shinzo Abe to become the next prime minister.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- A longtime rival to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is throwing his hat in the ring to become the country's next leader, hoping to block Abe from a third consecutive term at the ruling party's leadership race in September.

Shigeru Ishiba, who has served as both defense minister and Liberal Democratic Party's secretary general, is publishing a book criticizing Abe's policies soon, a de facto declaration of his candidacy.

In the book, Ishiba acknowledges that monetary easing and fiscal spending under Abenomics have helped stock prices, the exchange rate and employment figures. But he characterizes these policies as a "temporary shot in the arm" that failed to address Japan's underlying economic problems. He also argues that Abenomics failed to raise wages significantly. He calls for a new economic strategy focused on boosting productivity in the service, agricultural and construction industries outside big metropolitan areas.

On constitutional change, Ishiba advocates a straightforward path. In a strategy born out of political calculations, Abe is seeking to add an explicit reference to Japan's Self-Defense Forces in the constitution while keeping Article 9, a clause that bans the country from possessing "land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential." Ishiba questions this approach, proposing instead to remove this language and define outright the SDF as a military force.

Among others considering a run in the party race are Fumio Kishida, a former foreign minister and current LDP policy research chief, and Internal Affairs Minister Seiko Noda. Kishida will soon meet with members of his own party faction and ask them to leave the final decision to him. Opinion is divided within the faction.

Meanwhile, Abe is carefully weighing the timing to officially announce his bid. He canceled a planned trip to Europe and the Middle East in order to tour areas affected by deadly torrential rains in western Japan, and a hastily made announcement could be taken as a slight against the victims. "It will be hard to declare his candidacy until relief efforts settle down," an LDP official close to Abe said.

The current Diet session ends on July 22. Abe was initially expected to make an announcement around that time, but he may hold off in light of the floods. The prime minister could make the move at a campaign event on Aug. 11 in Yamaguchi Prefecture, Abe's home district. "It could be pushed back even further if the affected areas suffer a secondary disaster," the LDP official said.

Those close to Abe want him to enter the race as soon as possible so he can start campaigning. Polls show a recovery in Abe's approval rating, which tanked over a series of favoritism scandals, and suggest his advantage among national lawmakers. But it is unclear whether he has a decisive lead among regional party members, making it imperative for him to tour the country to garner support.

Ishiba presumably will be watching Abe closely. "It would be good Ishiba to make his official announcement immediately after the prime minister, positioning himself as the challenger," a lawmaker said.

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