Can Prime Minister Shinzo Abe Secure His Third Term as LDP President?

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party will hold its leadership election in September. Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was recently asked about the possibility of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe winning his third consecutive term as LDP president. Koizumi responded, "I think it will be difficult, because the Japanese people have lost trust in him. Everything he says sounds like an excuse."

The former prime minister has kept a distance from politics for years, except on the issue of abandoning nuclear power. While he was in office, Koizumi recognized Abe as his political heir. He selected Abe as the LDP secretary general, as well as chief cabinet secretary.

There has been turmoil in the Diet ever since problems surfaced concerning the sale of state-owned land to private school operator Moritomo Gakuen. Abe's wife was to be the honorary principal of a planned-elementary school managed by the operator. It was revealed that the Finance Ministry had been involved in the falsification of official documents related to the sale. The scandal has made the outcome of the LDP leadership election increasingly unclear.

If a new LDP leader is elected, that person would also become the new prime minister.

Approval rate falls

The Moritomo scandal is not the only issue threatening Abe. There are also questions concerning the opening of a new veterinary school in Ehime Prefecture. The school's operator, Kake Educational Institution, is headed by a close friend of Abe. Other problems, such as the cover-up of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force's activity logs from its mission in Iraq, and scandals involving high ranking government officials, have also surfaced.

The administration's approval rating fell to 38 percent in April. Its disapproval rating now exceeds its approval rating.

LDP Secretary General Toshihide Nikai, a key figure in the party management, expressed his irritation at the situation. He told reporters, "The Diet is entirely focused on these scandals day in and day out. I think the Japanese public is tired of it. So are we."

Another high-ranking member of the LDP has said, "I think it will be difficult for the Abe administration to raise its approval rating."

There is a widespread sense of crisis among the LDP members, who feel that the party is facing the most serious situation since returning to power in 2012.

Until recently, the dominant view within the LDP was that Abe would secure his third term in office. He led the party to a landslide victory in the snap general election last October. Some say that he's the only one who can tackle important issues such as North Korea and economic tension between Japan and the United States, as he has established good relations with US President Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and other leaders.

But mid-ranking LDP members say they are often criticized over the series of scandals when they are out giving speeches to the public. A former minister points out that it will be difficult for Abe to remain in office for a third term if his approval rating falls below 30 percent, and he fails to pass a work-reform bill -- which is currently one of the most important bills for the administration.

Ishiba aims to win support from local chapters

Former LDP Secretary General Shigeru Ishiba is one of the people who is aiming to succeed Abe. He spoke about his position in a recent speech and hinted at his intention to run for the leadership.

Ishiba said support rates tend to change and there is no point in discussing it. He stressed that all LDP members must support the Abe administration to the end, because they are the ones who created it. But he also said they need to consider who will be the next leader, as no administration will continue forever.

Some members of his faction are discouraged, because there haven't been calls for Ishiba to take the helm even when the Abe administration appears to be losing public trust. But those who are close to him say they want to garner support by stressing Ishiba's sincerity and his resolve to reform politics.

Kishida yet to decide

Fumio Kishida is the current chairman of the LDP Policy Research Council. He recently told reporters that he can't speak about the future because of the series of scandals. He said he hasn't made any decisions concerning the leadership election.

Kishida has constantly supported Abe as the foreign minister and the party policy chief since Abe took office in 2012. He apparently intends to succeed Abe, but hasn't made clear if he will run in the election.

Members of Kishida's faction are divided. Some insist that Kishida should run for party leader to keep his power from weakening. Others say he shouldn't, in order to maintain a good relationship with Abe. Kishida has constantly said a lawmaker must win if he is to fight. He is expected to decide on his strategy after seeing how Abe will handle the current situation.

Noda's challenge: Securing enough lawmaker recommendations

Seiko Noda is currently serving as the Internal Affairs and Communications Minister. She said the aim of the LDP leadership election is not to expel Abe from the post, but to offer candidates an opportunity to wage a battle on policies within the party every 3 years and communicate with the public. She said the party should continue the tradition.

In August last year, after the first Cabinet meeting of the current administration, Noda told reporters that she would run. It is unusual for someone in the Cabinet to take part, but she says there is no rule that bans incumbent ministers from running. She is stressing her originality such as her lifework promoting the role of women in society. She is also keeping active with the launch of a politics seminar.

Kono: Official duties first

Foreign Minister Taro Kono has long shown ambition to become prime minister. Some middle-ranking lawmakers are expecting him to succeed Abe. They acknowledge his ability to communicate with the public and his stance favoring reform.

Kono is currently keeping a distance from moves concerning the party leadership election, as he is a key cabinet member and belongs to a faction led by Finance Minister Taro Aso, who has clearly expressed support for Abe. Kono has made it clear that his priority is official duties. He has visited 34 countries and territories over the 8 months since he took office.

Overcoming the current situation

Currently, there appear to be no moves within the party to pressure Abe to step down immediately. A middle-ranking lawmaker said it isn't okay to abandon the leader when he or she is in trouble.

A former cabinet member says that if the Abe administration falls, the next one will also be affected by the ongoing problems, and eventually different party will take over. That's what happened after the end of the first Abe administration in 2007: the LDP clung to power for two more years before being voted out.

Party members are agreeing that they should first unite to overcome the current situation, and those aiming to succeed Abe are also in a wait-and-see mood.

Influential figure

Shinjiro Koizumi, the LDP's Chief Deputy Secretary-General and a son of Junichiro Koizumi, is said to hold the key to the election outcome. Koizumi inherited his father's articulateness and is popular among the public.

Young LDP lawmakers say many peers in their generation will be affected by Koizumi's choice for LDP leader. A senior LDP official says all candidates will want Koizumi's support. All eyes are on who Koizumi favors most.

In the election 6 years ago, Koizumi revealed that he voted for Ishiba after the ballot was over. Many are watching Koizumi's moves closely, wondering if he will announce his decision ahead of the election this time. So far, Koizumi has only said the election is a critical one, and that he wants to take time to decide. The winner of the election will be the LDP president through September 2021.