Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s new Cabinet — ostensibly reshuffled to continue his Abenomics policy push — also signals the start of a political race that could critically alter Japan’s course in the near future and begs the question: Who will take the reins after Abe?

In appointing Cabinet members and Liberal Democratic Party executives, Abe has repeatedly tapped political rivals for key positions, a tactic seen as designed to silence criticism against the administration from within.

Such potential rivals include Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, former LDP Secretary-General Sadakazu Tanigaki, and Shigeru Ishiba, former minister in charge of regional revitalization.

Serving in those positions, where they shared responsibilities for the administration’s policies, the three had little choice but to follow instructions from Abe to the letter.

But in Wednesday’s Cabinet reshuffle, Ishiba refused to accept any post, despite Abe having reportedly offered him both the agricultural or defense portfolios.

Observers say Ishiba has now clearly positioned himself as a rival to Abe, distancing himself from the government so that he can more freely criticize it if necessary.

Abe’s second term as the ruling LDP president expires in September 2018, and the party rules now prohibit its president from running for a third term.

The winner of the 2018 LDP presidential race will most likely be elected prime minister in the Diet.

“It’s important that there are various opinions within the LDP,” Ishiba told a news conference Tuesday. “I need to polish myself in many areas as far as policy matters are concerned.”

Meanwhile, speculation is rife that Abe himself may be preparing to lay the groundwork for his hand-picked heir apparent.

In reshuffling the Cabinet, Abe tapped former LDP policy chief Tomomi Inada as defense chief.

Observers believe Abe considers her a potential successor who would cherish a number of nationalistic policies Abe has vocally advocated — including visits to Tokyo’s war-linked Yasukuni Shrine.

Inada is clearly favored by Abe, who has rewarded her loyalty with a number of key positions both in the government and the party.

Abe may even be exploring the possibility of extending his term as LDP president beyond September 2018, if party rules can be amended.

On Wednesday, he appointed LDP Executive Council Chairman Toshihiro Nikai as the party’s secretary-general, the No. 2 position.

Nikai, a 77-year-old veteran lawmaker, has argued for party rules to be revised so that Abe can stay on as LDP president even after his second term expires.

The rules should be “flexibly” revised to allow Abe to stay at his post if no other viable alternative is found at the time, Nikai told a news conference on July 19.

Nikai is known as a vocal advocate of pork-barrel politics, urging massive fiscal spending for public works in rural areas.

He is a strong supporter of Abenomics — a large component of which involves such infrastructure spending — and has been a loyal ally to Abe in his post as Executive Council chairman.

For Ishiba, the road ahead does not appear to be easy.

He heads a small faction of about 20 LDP Diet members considered to be his power base for a possible bid to be the next LDP president.

But the influence of the once-mighty LDP factions have been considerably eroded due to electoral reforms in the 1990s and the strengthened Political Funds Control Law, which has greatly reduced corporate donations for faction leaders.

Given an apparent shortage of political funds, it is unclear how effectively Ishiba’s faction members can band together against the Abe regime.

“The heads of factions? Now factions are virtually nonexistent,” a high-ranking official close to Abe said Tuesday when asked about Ishiba’s decision to leave the Cabinet.

Indeed, in reshuffling the Cabinet, Abe did not accept any recommendations of candidates from faction leaders, underscoring the decline in power of such groups.

Now, with the LDP having won landslide victories in four consecutive national elections under Abe’s leadership, his clout within the party is stronger than ever, with faction leaders appearing almost powerless in comparison.

Abe has reshuffled his Cabinet four times since securing his second stint as leader in December 2012.

With each shake-up, he tapped a number of his favorite figures and friends either for the Cabinet or for LDP leadership slots.

Such promotions of certain favored figures would have been almost unthinkable for LDP prime ministers in the 1990s, when the heads of intraparty factions wielded significant influence.

Junichiro Koizumi, who served as prime minister from 2001 to 2006, was the first LDP leader to successfully challenge the factions’ dominance.

Abe, who formed his first Cabinet in 2006, has mimicked Koizumi’s style, bypassing the dwindling power of factions and instead attempting to rely purely on the support of voters.

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