TOKYO -- Ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai suggested on March 12 that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe could serve a fourth term as party leader -- going beyond the current limit of three terms.
"Based on his current performance, there's sufficient support for him from within and outside the party and particularly from overseas, so it's quite possible," Nikai said at a news conference. He added, "I'd like to hear opinions from all corners of the party and amicably come to a decision."
Through his comment, Nikai appeared to be eyeing retention of the party leadership's unifying force ahead of the House of Councillors election this summer. However, his remark created a stir within the party with suggestions that it was too early for such discussion.
Nikai previously led the initiative to extend the term of the LDP presidency in 2017 from a maximum of "two terms lasting six years" to "three terms lasting nine years." He was the one who successfully paved the way for Abe's extended leadership.
When questioned at a news conference about the adverse effects of a long-term administration, Nikai declared, "When no one else can take over the duties, there's no problem with it at all."
The same evening, Nikai gathered with the prime minister; deputy prime minister Taro Aso, who doubles as finance minister; LDP Election Strategy Headquarters head Akira Amari and other officials at a steak restaurant in Tokyo's posh Ginza district. Those present said the issue of a fourth term for Abe was not discussed; rather, the meeting served to display the presence of the administration's nerve center.
In September last year, after Abe won his third and final term as party leader, political maneuvering toward a "post-Abe" administration picked up. But if party rules are altered to allow Abe to serve a fourth term, his time in office could run until September 2024. And if he does seek a fourth term, those aiming to become party leader would end up in a battle against him, which would raise the hurdle for them to stand as candidates.
Suggestions of Abe running for a fourth term started to emanate from the LDP's Nikai faction, which is not fielding any candidates to serve as party president, from the beginning of the year. Katsunobu Kato, who chairs the party's General Council and is close to the prime minister, has also mentioned the possibility. However, Nikai's comment comes when the prime minister still has 2 1/2 years of his term remaining. One mid-ranking Diet member who supports the prime minister commented, "I don't think the prime minister is thinking of a fourth term. It's too early."
Hiromi Yoshida, secretary-general of the LDP caucus in the upper house who has a high opinion of the prime minister's capabilities, expressed at a news conference a sense of discomfort about discussing a fourth term. "It's too early to debate that," he said.
Those hoping to fill the prime minister's shoes in the future are taking a wait-and-see approach. Former party secretary-general Shigeru Ishiba, who won 45 percent of party members' votes in the last party leadership race, did not respond to questions from reporters in the Diet on March 12 or offer any comments
The party's policy chief, Fumio Kishida, who has expressed interest in becoming the next leader of the LDP, told reporters he had not received any reports on the matter, and stated, "What's clear at this point is that leadership is for three terms under party rules."
One politician who is not close to Abe who has served in the Cabinet in the past suggested, "It means Mr. Nikai wants to continue as secretary-general after the upper house election."
Akira Koike, head of the secretariat of the Japanese Communist Party, described the idea of a fourth term as a "nightmare." "It's utterly beside the question," he said. He added that his party would produce results in the coming nationwide local elections and upper house election that would put an end to such talk.
(Japanese original by Nozomu Takeuchi, and Shinya Hamanaka, Political News Department)