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While supporting Abe, Kishida gains momentum to be his successor

From left, new LDP Policy Research Council Chairman Fumio Kishida, party Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hold a meeting at the party headquarters on Aug. 3, 2017. (Mainichi)

Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, who is viewed as a frontrunner to replace Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has taken up the role of Policy Research Council chairman of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), one of the party's top three posts after party president. The party's Kishida faction has also secured a strong presence within the Cabinet.

Cooperation from the Kishda faction was deemed necessary to keep the Abe administration afloat amid a plummeting Cabinet approval rating in the wake of scandals including allegations of favoritism involving Kake Educational Institution, an educational body run by a close friend of Abe. Kishida's presence within the administration has thus quickly risen, giving him a foothold in securing a post-Abe position. While the Hosoda faction, from which Abe hails, carries its own weight, efforts to raise the profile of the Kishida faction could be seen as a shift away from the stance of having a single strong figure within the party -- under which moves to build up the LDP have struggled.

Kishida told reporters at the prime minister's office on Aug. 2, that his faction, Kochikai, will support the current administration. In doing so, he underscored the presence of a leading faction providing support to Prime Minister Abe.

Kishida, who served as foreign minister from when Abe came back to power in December 2012, orchestrated a May 2016 visit by then U.S. President Barack Obama to Hiroshima, but the minister had tended to be buried as a behind-the-scenes supporter of, in Abe's own words, the prime minister's "foreign policy that takes a panoramic view of the globe." Members of the Kishida faction had been disappointed by this, and Kishida himself divulged that he wanted to gain strength through experience in a top party post.

The situation turned following the LDP's historic defeat in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election on July 2. Before then, it had been taken for granted that Abe would serve as president of the LDP until 2021 and that Kishida would aim for a smooth transfer of power after this. But this outlook suddenly changed after the election, with State Minister of Justice Masahito Moriyama, who belongs to the Kishida faction, stating, "It had been said that the one to follow Abe would be Abe himself. But there has been a complete change in the situation. The person closest to being the next prime minister is Foreign Minister Kishida."

There had been strong hopes from those on the prime minister's side for Kishida to stay on as foreign minister. One high-ranking government official commented, "The foreign minister is an important part of the framework of the administration, and we want him to remain within the Cabinet and support the prime minister." That, however, has not happened, and if Kishida, who is leaving the Cabinet, turns against Abe in the same way as former regional revitalization minister Shigeru Ishiba, who turned down a Cabinet post during last year's Cabinet reshuffle, then the future of the administration could become even less secure.

On July 20, Abe met with Kishida in Tokyo for about two hours and strongly requested his cooperation in managing the government. In return, Abe had no option but to agree to appoint Kishida to one of the top party posts, allowing him to gain a footing as a candidate to be the next prime minister. A chuckling official from the Kishida faction commented, "With the administration's current level of strength, it probably couldn't withstand giving Mr. Kishida a powerless position."

The prime minister also gave the greatest consideration to the Kishida faction in his Cabinet reshuffle. Beforehand, just two members of the faction, Kishida and Minister of State for Regional Revitalization Kozo Yamamoto had posts as Cabinet ministers, but this time four members of the faction are entering the Cabinet: Yoshimasa Hayashi, Itsunori Onodera, Yoko Kamikawa, and Masaji Matsuyama.

It cannot be denied that the administration may be relying on the Kishida faction as it looks to make a turnaround in the wake of Cabinet ministerial gaffes and scandals. This is because the faction, which has appointed itself as a "mainstream conservative", has many members with experience as Cabinet ministers. In particular, it is hoped that Hayashi will help bring confusion under control at the education ministry, from which internal documents relating the Kake scandal were continually leaked, while the same expectations fall on Onodera at the Ministry of Defense following a scandal involving the alleged cover-up of the logs of Japanese peacekeepers in South Sudan.

However, if Kishida's moves to succeed Abe strengthen, then it could hinder the operation of the Abe administration. In a recent address, Kishida stated that he was not thinking of revising war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution, as Abe has desired -- a sign that he would not rush the issue. Regarding Abe's economic policy mix, "Abenomics," Kishida has started to vividly show his own colors, stating, "It's important to respond appropriately to the negative aspects, such as disparity resulting from economic policy today."

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