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PM Abe aims to cement power base ahead of party presidential race

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, foreground at left, and other ministers of his Cabinet are seen after paying their respects at Ise Jingu shrine, in Ise, Mie Prefecture, on Jan. 4, 2018. (Mainichi)

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hinted at his apparent desire to aim for even a longer rule of the government at a New Year press conference on Jan. 4, where he said, "We have made a giant step forward toward building Japan with its eyes set on 2020 and beyond."

While Abe stopped short of openly stating his intention to run in his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)'s presidential election scheduled for this coming September to aim for his third consecutive term as party president, a government source speculated that the prime minister will "look for the best timing to announce his candidacy in the race after the regular session of the Diet closes while waiting to see other candidates' moves."

In contrast, former LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba clearly demonstrated his intention to run in the party leadership race at his local office in the city of Tottori on Jan. 1, saying, "I would like to live up to people's expectations."

Another prime ministerial aspirant, Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications Seiko Noda, told a TV program on BS Nippon on Jan. 4, "Although I appreciate Prime Minister Abe's policy measures, I find them not enough" -- hinting at her enthusiasm to throw her hat in the ring for the party presidential race.

LDP Policy Research Council Chairman Fumio Kishida, who has been touted as a post-Abe hopeful since his stint as foreign minister, went no further than to state in Hiroshima on Jan. 4 that, "As there's plenty of time until (the election) this fall, I would like to contemplate how I should respond to the race."

In the previous September 2015 LDP presidential race, Abe was re-elected to the party's leadership without a vote after Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and others succeeded in preventing Noda from securing enough endorsements from her peers to enter the race. For the upcoming party leadership election, however, Suga said during a recent interview with the Mainichi Shimbun, "It's desirable that anyone who wants to run will throw their hats in the ring in accordance with party rules." Other allies of Abe have also said, "It is hoped that the prime minister will squarely face off against his rival candidates."

Calls from within the prime minister's office for the party leadership race to be fought among several candidates are aimed at impressing the public with Abe's predominance by pitting him against powerful rival candidates such as Ishiba in the race -- before Abe possibly scores a landslide victory to secure his third term as party president. Abe will need to maintain his centripetal force within his party as his administration will enter its final phase even if he wins his third term, unless the maximum tenure for party presidents is extended yet one more time.

For Abe to clinch a sweeping victory in the party leadership race, he will need to attract more votes from the LDP's local legislators and members than his archrival Ishiba. In the September 2012 party presidential race, Abe had placed second in the first round of voting behind Ishiba, who garnered the majority of local votes. Abe subsequently turned the tables in the runoff election by party legislators in the National Diet, but was criticized for making light of local chapters. Accordingly, Abe has since attempted to give more weight to local votes through revisions to in-house rules for party presidential elections in 2013 and 2014.

As votes from local LDP legislators and members better reflect public opinion than votes from party Diet members, Abe will need to secure stable public support in order to win the forthcoming presidential race, on top of cementing his power base within the party.

While the approval ratings for the Abe Cabinet remain strong, the support rate had plummeted after the controversial security legislation was rammed through the Diet in 2015.

"I will listen to the silent majority," Abe told the New Year press conference, adding, "I will sharpen my sensibilities more than ever and will press ahead with building a new Japan together with the people."

Abe also pledged to sever the practice of long working hours and named the regular Diet session to be convened on Jan. 22 as a "work-style reform Diet session" -- in an apparent bid to demonstrate his stance to live up to public expectations on issues of their utmost interest. His speech underscored his strategy of accumulating tangible results as he gears up for the next party presidential showdown.

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