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Who is Abe's successor? Japan's ex-kingmakers offer clues

Key positions in cabinet and party have been paths to prime minister

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gives a policy speech at the opening of the extraordinary Diet session on Oct. 4: Speculation is growing over who will succeed him. (Photo by Uichiro Kasai)

TOKYO -- Two Japanese leaders from the past offer clues to the mystery of who will succeed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe when his term as president of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party expires in less than two years.

In a recent cabinet reshuffle, the prime minister placed the numerous "post-Abe contenders" in key government and LDP positions, leaving bureaucrats and lawmakers pondering who best qualifies as the front-runner.

They often cite the golden rule formulated by former prime ministers Kakuei Tanaka and Noboru Takeshita as the conditions to be Japan's top leader.

Tanaka and Takeshita served as prime ministers in the 1970s and late 1980s, respectively. Both held vast political power and reigned as leaders of the LDP's largest faction. Most importantly, they remained kingmakers long after they stepped down from their official posts.

Tanaka is said to have required a candidate to fill two conditions. First, the candidate should have held two of the top three party jobs including the secretary-general who runs election campaigns and holds the strings to the party's purse.

Kakuei Tanaka   © Kyodo

Second, Tanaka wanted a candidate to have experienced two major cabinet positions, leading the ministries of foreign affairs, finance, or trade and industry.

Tanaka believed that a prime minister candidate must be acquainted with the country's basic policies, which these ministries represent.

Takeshita, meanwhile, had his own scoring system, giving out points to candidates each time they experienced a post. He gave out the highest points to the LDP secretary-general, for reasons similar to Tanaka.

Under a parliamentary cabinet system where the president of the ruling party becomes prime minister, Takeshita thought that one must be familiar with the party's operations, including elections and building parliamentary alliances. Tanaka, a predecessor, had risen to power by expanding his influence through elections as party secretary-general.

Among today's candidates, Fumio Kishida, who served as foreign minister under Abe from 2012 to 2017, is said to have wanted the secretary-general job at this latest leadership reshuffle. Instead, he stayed on as head of the LDP's Policy Research Council -- one of the top three party jobs, but not the most important one that Tanaka and Takeshita both considered vital. The other key party job is the General Affairs Council chief.

"The Tanaka-Takeshita model" served well in an era that is different from today. Japan's economy was growing rapidly. The Cold War dominated foreign policy. And under the previous electoral system, where politicians from the same party ran against each other in larger constituency districts, factional politics ruled the day.

Serving as LDP secretary-general in those days meant spearheading such brutal elections. Serving as finance minister meant overseeing the distribution of the nation's riches. The fact that both Tanaka and Takeshita became prime ministers after serving as finance minister and party secretary-general, formed their beliefs in the golden rule.

Noboru Takeshita   © Reuters

But the factional politics epitomized by the Tanaka-Takeshita model came under criticism as oriented around money. Following many political scandals, the single-seat constituency system was introduced in 1996 as a way to promote competition among parties based on policy proposals, rather than same-party members dishing out money in their constituencies to garner support.

If the single-seat system were working as the architects of the policy had envisioned, the head of the leading opposition party would be the front-runner to replace a prime minister.

But in modern Japan, where the opposition parties are weak and have split and splintered repeatedly, Abe's successor is widely believed to emerge from within the same LDP. This is why the Tanaka-Takeshita model has regained life.

With Abe's term ending in September 2021, various LDP factions are toying with alliances, knowing that winning the party leadership automatically means the post of prime minister as well.

In recent years, there was a period when the Tanaka-Takeshita model did not function.

Junichiro Koizumi, who won the LDP presidential election in 2001 on his third try, had no experience serving in the party's leadership or as minister of finance or foreign affairs. Tanaka and Takeshita would simply have considered him unfit to lead. Yet his high public approval rating empowered Koizumi and allowed him to stay in power for five years.

Koizumi's "weirdo" character convinced LDP members that his rise was an event peculiar to him. But in reality, the Koizumi model was not a result of his unique character, but the culmination of a series of political reforms, including the single-seat constituency system, that were designed to weaken factions and empower the Prime Minister's Office.

The custodian of the Prime Minister's Office, the chief cabinet secretary, therefore, became more powerful.

That is why the current chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, while not affiliated with any faction and who has not held any of the party's three main posts, is often cited as a major post-Abe contender.

Other contenders include Taro Kono, who was shifted recently from foreign minister to defense minister, and Katsunobu Kato of the Takeshita faction. Kato is serving as health minister for the second time, just like Koizumi.

First-time Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi, the 38-year-old son of Junichiro Koizumi, is another contender. For reference, Emmanuel Macron became the French president when he was 39.

Potential contenders for prime minister. Clockwise from top left, Fumio Kishida, Toshimitsu Motegi, Taro Kono, Katsunobu Kato, Yoshihide Suga and Shinjiro Koizumi.

The foreign minister has become an increasingly important post as well. Keizo Obuchi was tapped for the role in 1997, eight years after he stepped down as chief cabinet secretary. Obuchi craved the position, saying "Now that the Cold War is over, it is time for diplomacy." He became prime minister the following year.

Japan's new foreign minister, Toshimitsu Motegi, played the lead role in finalizing the recent trade talks with the U.S. as economic policy minister. For Tokyo, which positions its alliance with Washington at the core of its foreign and security policy, it remains important to settle economic disputes with the U.S.

Abe became prime minister after serving only as the LDP's secretary-general and chief cabinet secretary. As for these two posts, former Prime Minister Takeshita once encouraged his protege Obuchi, who was then without title, that bright days awaited him because he had experienced those two positions.

It was at Obuchi's 60th birthday party. "I served as chief cabinet secretary and then became the LDP secretary-general, as was the case with you," Takeshita said. "I became prime minister when I was 63. You still have three years to reach that age."

It can be argued that Abe had the experience of key party and cabinet posts as defined in the Tanaka-Takeshita model as qualifications for the premiership.

The first Abe administration was short-lived, covering a year from 2006 to 2007. His second shot at the LDP presidency was no slam dunk either. In the first round of polls, Abe fell behind Nobuteru Ishihara in the number of votes from LDP lawmakers and Shigeru Ishiba in votes from the broader party members. Only in the runoff did Abe manage to defeat the two and clinch the seat of prime minister again.

Since then he has not looked back. In November, Abe's tenure as prime minister will become the longest in the history of Japan's constitutional politics, exceeding the record set by Taro Katsura. Abe's victory defies the Tanaka-Takeshita model, but his success results from blending different methods.

After working as a secretary to his father, Shintaro Abe, a foreign minister during the 1980s, Shinzo Abe was first elected to the lower house of parliament in 1993 -- in the last election under the multiple-seat constituency system. Later, he built his political career under the single-seat constituency system.

Shinzo Abe, meanwhile, is a digital savvy politician, sensitive to internet opinion and active on social media. He is the face of conservatism but also carries out liberal policies. He is a hybrid politician knowing both the old, factional politics and the new digital politics led by the prime minister's office.

Abe appears to have no intention of extending his term of leadership. He probably will reshuffle the party leadership and the cabinet one final time. Will the next LDP leader rise through the faction-driven Tanaka-Takeshita model, or emerge as a new type? The "post-Abe" mystery heralds the future of not just the LDP, but Japanese politics as a whole.

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