Reference | Q&A

LDP weighs leader’s term limits as Abe angles to stay in power

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party is expected to kick off discussions as soon as next month over whether to revise internal rules to allow Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to run for a third term in the next LDP presidential race to be held by September 2018.

Given the LDP’s solid majority in the Diet, the winner of the race is all but certain to be elected by the legislature as the prime minister as well.

But why have party executives started pushing the idea of extending Abe’s term? What are the procedures for revising the rules and are they likely to be amended?

Following are questions and answers on revising the LDP rules to extend Abe’s term:

Why has revising the rules become a hot topic?

On Aug. 3, Abe appointed veteran lawmaker Toshihiro Nikai as LDP secretary-general, the party’s No. 2 position.

The move prompted speculation that Abe is seeking a third term as Nikai has openly argued that party rules should be revised to allow Abe to continue on as president.

Currently, LDP rules ban a party president from running for a third two-year term. This means Abe, who is now serving his second term as LDP president, cannot run in the next LDP presidential race, which must be held no later than September 2018.

During a news conference on Aug. 3, Nikai said the party should soon start discussions on whether Abe can seek a third term after revising party rules. Nikai said the LDP will make a decision on this by the end of the year.

Abe has two more years before his term ends. Why hold discussions now?

Observers believe the hawkish nationalist wants to serve a third term so he can accomplish his long-held goal of revising the postwar Constitution.

As a result of the Upper House election in July, parties willing to revise the Constitution occupy more than two-thirds of both the lower and upper chambers of the Diet for the first time ever.

Backing by two-thirds of the lawmakers in both houses is a prerequisite for the Diet to initiate a national referendum on a constitutional revision.

But those parties, including the LDP and its ruling coalition partner, Komeito, are split over which articles of the Constitution should be revised first.

Political insiders say it would probably take more than two years for the Diet to form any consensus and then arrange a referendum to revise any article of the Constitution.

Komeito has opposed revising the war-renouncing Article 9, while it is willing to add an article to guarantee the people’s right to a better living environment.

Meanwhile, polls have shown a majority of voters have consistently opposed any revision to Article 9, the most contentious provision in the Constitution.

Publicly, Abe has said he is not considering running for a third term. But close aides have long privately believed that the rules should be revised.

Many conservatives believe the chance of a constitutional revision would become slim if Abe is no longer LDP president.

What are the procedures for revising the party rules?

The party rules can be revised at a party convention attended by LDP Diet members and four representatives from each of the 47 LDP prefectural chapters.

Each member has one ballot, and support of half of those in attendance is required to revise a party rule.

Party conventions are usually held in the spring, but can be convened any time if such a demand is issued at a general meeting of LDP lawmakers, or more than a third of the prefectural branches.

The general meeting of the LDP Diet members, meanwhile, can also replace a party convention in dealing with “particularly urgent” issues, according to party rules.

How likely will the party rules be revised?

No one is sure, but Abe has few political rivals powerful enough to challenge him after the LDP won a landslide victory in the July Upper House election, boosting his chances of remaining at the LDP helm.

However, veteran LDP members, including Shigeru Ishiba, who are considered potential rivals to Abe, have recently urged caution about revising the party rules to allow Abe to stay in power.

Whether they can garner support from other LDP members will likely be a key factor in the party power game.

On a radio program Sunday, Ishiba, a former minister in charge of the revitalization of rural areas, said he “doesn’t understand why it’s a top priority issue” for the LDP to revise the party rules in what was seen as a dig at Abe’s bid for a third term as LDP president.

Ishiba, who heads a small intraparty faction, refused to join Abe’s new Cabinet formed on Aug. 3 and is now seen as a potential rival.

Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, who is regarded as another potential successor to Abe, has also said it is “still too early” to discuss revising the rules, since Abe was only re-elected LDP president last September.

Has any LDP president succeeded in extending their run as president by revising party rules?

Yes. In 1986, a meeting of LDP lawmakers was convened to revise the rules to extend the presidential term of then LDP President and Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone.

The revision followed the LDP’s landslide victory in dual national elections earlier the same year under Nakasone as the LDP president and prime minister.

Then a provision was added to the rules so that an LDP president could extend a term by one year if more than two-thirds of the party’s Diet members supported it. This article was dropped in 2002.