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Abe seeks 3 more years, with polls showing 39% support

Prime minister eyes constitutional change with new party mandate but 73% skeptical

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announces his candidacy for party leadership in Tarumizu in Kagoshima Prefecture on Sunday. (Photo by Uichiro Kasai)

TARUMIZU, Japan -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe officially announced his candidacy for president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party on Sunday during a trip to southern Japan.

"I am determined to lead Japan for another three years," Abe said in the Kagoshima Prefecture city of Tarumizu.

Abe hopes to win a third consecutive three-year term as party leader in the Sept. 20 election, which is expected to be a two-way race with former LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba. The position last was contested six years ago.

The prime minister was regarded as most fit to lead the LDP by 39% of respondents in a poll conducted Friday through Sunday by Nikkei and TV Tokyo. Abe led Ishiba, who gained 31% support. Seiko Noda, the minister for internal affairs and communications, stood a distant third with 4%.

"It is my duty to carry out the mandate of the people," Abe said, arguing that last year's Diet lower house election showed that the LDP has public support.

"Japan will face a major turning point in its history" as Emperor Akihito abdicates next year, Abe said. "How to build the nation will become a campaign issue, and I hope to conduct solid debate."

Regarding his pet cause of revising Japan's pacifist constitution, Abe indicated that he hopes to submit the LDP's proposal to the Diet as early as the extraordinary session this fall. But 73% of respondents in the Nikkei/TV Tokyo survey said the proposal should not be submitted hastily, while 17% favored swift action. Even among LDP supporters, 69% said that the matter should not be rushed.

Abe chose to announce his candidacy outside of Tokyo, in front of the picturesque but active volcano of Sakurajima, in Kagoshima Prefecture. The race for party chief will hinge on 405 votes cast by local LDP members and affiliates in addition to the votes of the party's 405 lawmakers at the national level.

Ishiba's slim chances of victory depend on a wave of support from Japan's countryside, and the challenger has been campaigning mainly in the rural areas.

On Sunday, Abe met with representatives of the timber industry and cattle farmers, promising to do his best to support agriculture and forestry. He also visited a fishing port where he saw freshly caught yellowtail being unloaded from a vessel.    

The prime minister holds the support of many Diet members and is considered likely to win a third term. Noda, who would be the party's first female leader, is having difficulty securing the 20 nominations from Diet members needed to enter the race.

Meanwhile, Ishiba told reporters in Tokyo on Sunday evening that pensions, elderly care, child raising and economic policy are the topics that people are most interested in. "We need debates that are easy to understand," he said. 

In the poll, approval for Abe's cabinet reached 48%, up 3 percentage points from the previous survey in late July. The approval rate topped the disapproval rate, which stood at 42%, for the first time in two months. Support for the LDP rose 7 points to 45%. The improved figures for the cabinet and party offer a tailwind for Abe.

Abe has strong support in urban areas, leading Ishiba 44% to 25% in an area covered by Tokyo and the surrounding prefectures of Chiba, Saitama and Kanagawa along with Osaka and its neighboring prefectures of Kyoto, Nara and Hyogo. But in Japan's remaining 39 prefectures, the two men were roughly equal at 36% for Abe to 35% for Ishiba.

Support for the prime minister also connects to voters' opinions of Abenomics. Of those backing Abe, 72% gave high marks to his signature economic policies, while 66% of Ishiba supporters offered a negative review of Abenomics.

Improving social security led the list of policies that should be a priority for the next LDP president, cited by 46% of respondents. Forty percent wanted an economic recovery, while 33% mentioned foreign affairs and national security. Just 9% said that Japan's constitution should be amended. Multiple responses were allowed for this question.

In the survey, men and women 18 or older were called by random-digit dialing. There were 950 responses, for a response rate of 45.8%.

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