The gate is open and the horses are off and running.
2006 is sure to be an eventful year for politics. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s term as Liberal Democratic Party president ends in September and four men are already jockeying to demonstrate their ability and ambition to succeed him.
They are Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, 51, former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda, 69, Foreign Minister Taro Aso, 65, and Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki, 60.
These likely contenders, however, are not cut from the same cloth as Koizumi’s predecessors, who relied on the strength of their LDP factions, fundraising skills and backroom negotiations.
Koizumi changed that setup. Like him, his successor may have to depend less on power within the ruling party and more on public appeal.
LDP lawmakers are now more sensitive to public whims, political insiders say.
“Factions remain now only in form. Their influence over political funds and personnel matters have ended,” said Raizo Matsuno, former LDP Executive Council chairman and now political commentator.
Indeed, none of the four hopefuls is a faction boss in the traditional LDP sense. Tanigaki is the only one who heads a faction, but it is small, with 15 members.
The LDP’s overall, and nonfactional, control of political funds has been strengthened with revised legislation after the corruption scandals of the early 1990s. Koizumi has also weakened factions by handpicking his Cabinet without consulting them.
“The influence of local LDP chapters and rank-and-file members, who are strongly affected by public opinion, will be key” in the party’s upcoming presidential election, instead of the power balance of factionalism, Matsuno predicted.
Thanks to his strong popularity, Abe is regarded as leading the post-Koizumi race.
He has been ranked way out in front in recent media polls asking who should be the next prime minister. The hawkish young conservative has won his popularity thanks in part to his tough stance toward China and North Korea.
“Right now, Abe is in the most advantageous position,” Matsuno said.
Abe grew up under the influence of his grandfather, the late Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, who shepherded a revised Japan-U.S. security treaty in 1960 to strengthen the bilateral military alliance.
He often says he inherited his “politician DNA” from Kishi, rather than his late father, Shintaro, who served as foreign minister and was known as a dove.
Abe is a longtime advocate of revising the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution, as his grandfather was.
He also advocates politicians visiting Yasukuni Shrine, which honors 2.47 million war dead as well as 14 Class-A war criminals who were tried after the war and were either hanged or died in prison.
Kishi was arrested by the Occupation forces as an alleged Class-A war criminal but was later released without being charged.
But Matsuno describes Abe as a “soft” politician who will engage in “safe politics” by building a consensus within the party.
In fact, after being appointed chief Cabinet secretary in October, he has toned down his rhetoric against China and stopped calling for economic sanctions against North Korea.
“I don’t think he has strong willpower. He won’t use heavy-handed tactics” either in diplomacy or domestic politics, Matsuno said.
The sharpest contrast among the four is between Abe and Fukuda, who has openly criticized Koizumi for harming Sino-Japanese relations by continuing to visit Yasukuni.
Contrary to Fukuda’s “soft” image, Matsuno describes him as “a little bit hard,” aggressive and strong willed.
Fukuda, despite being the son of the late Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda, long remained out of the spotlight until he was appointed chief Cabinet secretary in October 2000 by Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori.
But Fukuda gradually assumed full control of officials at the prime minister’s office and has become overbearing and brimming with confidence. He drew flak when an off-the-record remark that Japan theoretically could abandon its stand against possessing nuclear arms became public in May 2002.
Fukuda has also been popular with elderly politicians who are afraid of generational changes within the LDP should junior members like Abe take the LDP helm.
In contrast, Abe is particularly popular with young politicians, who hope he ends the rigid seniority-based tradition of the 50-year-old LDP.
Norihiko Narita, a professor of political science at Surugadai University, argued that Fukuda could emerge as a strong candidate for prime minister if the nation wants someone different from the populist Koizumi camp.
“I will watch with great attention what Fukuda decides (over the LDP presidential race),” Takenori Kanzaki, president of the LDP’s junior partner New Komeito, which is critical of Abe’s and Koizumi’s hawkish stance, said Dec. 12.
Meanwhile, if Aso appears set to take the helm, relations with China and South Korea could grow worse than they already are.
Soon after his appointment in October, Aso became the target of criticism from South Korean media after he said, “Only China and South Korea talk about Yasukuni,” and Japan does not “need to care about (the shrine issue) very much.”
Aso is known for blatant and sometimes haughty rhetoric. But observers say his attitude toward Yasukuni may reflect that of his grandfather, the late Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, who led Japan soon after the war.
“My grandfather was the first (postwar) prime minister to pay an official visit to Yasukuni Shrine,” Aso wrote in his 2000 book “Sofu Yoshida Shigeru no Ryugi” (“The way of my grandfather Shigeru Yoshida”).
“I want to be proud of the history, tradition and culture of my country.” Aso wrote. “My grandfather no doubt cherished his country more strongly than ordinary people.”
Aso is a political blue-blood and an experienced businessman who has successfully converted his family’s declining coal mining business into a cement company that now boasts more than 80 group firms in various fields.
Belonging to a small and weak LDP faction led by Lower House Speaker Yohei Kono, Aso is not considered popular with the public. He has shown loyalty to Koizumi, apparently in an effort to stay in the hunt for the prime ministership.
Tanigaki meanwhile is of a totally different stripe from the other three.
He is known for his thorough grasp of policy, and for his balanced views.
Government hands consider Tanigaki the best of the lot. In a 2001 survey by the Yomiuri Shimbun, bureaucrats chose him as their No. 1 choice as a future prime minister.
But he is going to have to prove himself as finance minister, with difficult tasks ahead, Matsuno said.
The Finance Ministry is now trying to set the stage for hiking the unpopular consumption tax to address the debt-ridden government coffers.
Tanigaki has also been tasked with curbing and paring snowballing government bonds, a job that will eventually restrain spending for the public.
“If he can (manage) the government bond issue, he will be regarded as a great finance minister,” and this will help him emerge as a strong successor to Koizumi, said Matsuno, who noted the race for the prime minister has just begun and all four have months to boost their appeal to voters.
“Abe is popular right now, but there is no guarantee that his popularity will continue until September,” Matsuno said. “What counts is who will be the most popular, say, in August. The race has just begun.”