Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe hinted Wednesday he will officially announce his candidacy to succeed Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party after the mid-July summit of the Group of Eight industrialized nations in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Despite his high rating in opinion polls as a possible candidate to become the next prime minister, Wednesday was the first time Abe, the government’s top spokesman, indicated he planned to run for the post.

Abe had been dodging the question, saying his duty was to support Koizumi’s reforms as chief Cabinet secretary.

“After the summit is over, I would have to think when should be the timing (of the announcement),” he said in his speech delivered in Tokyo.

Asked how he feels about his popularity, he said, “Without the polls, it is unlikely (for anyone) to be seen as a candidate for the next prime minister at this stage.”

Koizumi’s term as LDP chief ends at the end of September. Observers say his would-be successors will probably officially throw their hats into the ring after the current Diet session ends on June 18.

In the speech, Abe said the proposed constitutional amendment to revise Article 9, which prohibits Japan from using force to settle international disputes, will be a big issue for the next administration, with the LDP preparing to submit a bill to the current Diet session authorizing the national referendum required to make such an amendment possible.

Abe said he supports changing the Constitution because it was drafted during the U.S. Occupation and needs to be updated after half a century.

Later in the day at a regular news conference, he denied a media report earlier in the day that he has instructed supporters in the LDP to hammer out a policy agenda for his campaign.

“I have not yet been under such a situation,” he said, adding that he will have to work hard to pass several important reform bills dealing with education and the medical system.

Abe’s predecessor and main rival, Yasuo Fukuda, has been the second-most popular choice among voters for LDP president. Other possible contenders include Foreign Minister Taro Aso and Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki.

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