The ruling Liberal Democratic Party scrambled to find a successor to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday as former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda and Finance Minister Fukushiro Nukaga expressed their intention to vie for the LDP presidency and thus the prime ministership.
LDP Secretary General Taro Aso, who leads a small faction and was reportedly considered a front-runner, had yet to declare his candidacy as of Thursday night and was apparently trying to gain more support from other factions.
But Fukuda has reportedly gained the backing of some LDP executives, notably those led by Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura, who chairs the LDP’s largest faction, making him a powerful rival to Aso.
Fukuda, 71, an advocate of a more dovish policy toward other Asian countries, was Abe’s main rival in the presidential election last year. He is favored by senior members eager to revive the LDP’s traditional seniority system, which was derailed by 52-year-old Abe, the nation’s youngest postwar prime minister.
Another potential candidate, Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki, was also expected to run but had not confirmed his candidacy as of Thursday night, generating further speculation.
The behind-the-scenes huddling was triggered by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s surprise announcement on Wednesday that he was resigning. Any candidates must be endorsed by at least 20 of their fellow LDP lawmakers, and the backing of factions is indispensable.
After initially planning to hold the election Wednesday, the LDP’s top executives on Thursday decided to delay it until Sept. 23 at the request of several members who wanted more time to campaign.
Whoever is chosen LDP president will almost surely become prime minister. The party has a comfortable majority in the House of Representatives, where the new prime minister is chosen.
“It is both the duty and the task of a politician to challenge difficulties with a strong spirit. To carry out the mission, I want to stand on the front line,” Nukaga said Thursday.
But party heavyweight Mikio Aoki, a senior member of the same faction Nukaga belongs to, has reservations about his running, a faction source said. This casts doubt on whether Nukaga will be able to secure the formal backing of his faction.
In the meantime, dozens of LDP lawmakers approached the party’s most recent savior, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, and asked him to return to the helm. But the popular and eccentric leader firmly quashed their hopes the same day.
In a meeting with former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, Koizumi said that there is “absolutely no chance” he will run, a faction source said.
Mori wields heavy influence in the LDP faction that has produced the last three prime ministers since 2000: Mori himself, Koizumi and Abe.
As of Wednesday night, Yasufumi Tanahashi, a former state minister for science and technology who leads a group of pro-Koizumi lawmakers, had collected signatures from 31 fellow lawmakers urging Koizumi to run.
Koizumi still enjoys strong popular support a year after his resignation. Opinion polls show Koizumi would be a popular candidate to become the next prime minister.