Rivals are jockeying to replace Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as the embattled leader struggles with sinking support, but so far none have offered detailed policy alternatives to his “strong defense, strong economy” platform.
Battered by scandals involving suspected cronyism, Abe’s ratings have slid near or below 30 percent, dampening his chances of gaining a third three-year term as Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leader in a September vote and sparking talk he might step down sooner.
Former Japanese minister of foreign affairs Fumio Kishida, a low-key lawmaker seen as a leading contender, on Wednesday edged closer to an outright challenge, unveiling slogans that called for “checks and balances on power” and “bottom-up” decisionmaking.
Abe, who began his second stint as Japanese prime minister in December 2012, has been criticized as having an authoritarian bent, although fans admire what they see as strong leadership.
“I am called a man who doesn’t or cannot take a leap, but ... I will show that I will act when a crisis comes,” Kishida said to cheers from supporters at a fundraising party.
He earlier told reporters he had not decided whether to run.
Other potential successors include hawkish former Japanese minister of defense Shigeru Ishiba; Japanese Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications Seiko Noda, the only contender to say publicly she wants to run in September; and Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Taro Kono, a 55-year-old lawmaker known for bucking party policy.
Shinjiro Koizumi, 37, the popular and telegenic son of a former Japanese prime minister, ranks high in the polls, but is widely seen as too young to jump more senior LDP members.
A reserved former banker, Kishida, 60, hails from a more dovish faction of the conservative LDP.
He has been less than enthusiastic about Abe’s project of revising the post-war, pacifist constitution.
For Abe, amending the US-drafted charter — seen by some conservatives as a humiliating symbol of Japan’s defeat in World War II — has long been a top priority.
On the economy, Kishida has said the Bank of Japan’s hyper-easy monetary policy — a pillar of Abe’s “Abenomics” growth strategy — cannot go on forever and has urged greater attention to reining in the nation’s enormous public debt.
Similar criticisms of Abenomics have also been aired by Ishiba, with an added focus on reviving Japan’s struggling rural regions.
However, his proposals for doing so have so far lacked details.
Ishiba, 61, favors a more drastic change to the constitution’s pacifist Article 9 than Abe has proposed.
He has also suggested Japan, the only nation to suffer a nuclear attack, should discuss whether to keep its bans on possessing, manufacturing or allowing nuclear weapons into its territory.
He is popular with rank-and-file LDP members, but less so with colleagues in parliament, some of whom still recall his temporary defection from the party decades ago.
In 2012, he topped Abe in the first round of the LDP leadership vote with the support of ordinary party members, but lost in a second round in which only members of parliament voted.
The US-educated Kono, 55, has a reputation as a political maverick.
That image has been dented since he joined the Cabinet and appears more willing to toe the party line, although he remains outspoken on the need for Japan to wean itself from nuclear power and boost renewable energy.
Noda, 57, faces an uphill fight to win support in the male-dominated LDP.
In 2015, she was unable to gain the 20 backers needed to challenge Abe in an LDP leadership race and Abe was elected without a vote, but Noda — the mother of a son who has a disability and was conceived via donor eggs and in vitro fertilization, and an advocate of a bigger role for women in politics — might be tapped if the party wants to recast itself in a “kinder, gentler” mold.
Koizumi — usually referred to as “Shinjiro” to distinguish him from his father, former Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi — could be another option for a party in search of a fresh face.
He has managed to sound critical of his elders, while keeping in their good graces, calling for reforms to social security to rebalance spending toward younger voters, but he is generally seen as too green to become prime minister yet.
“Japan is not ready for a Macron,” said Jesper Koll, an economist who has followed Japanese politics for decades, referring to 40-year-old French President Emmanuel Macron.
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