The ruling Liberal Democratic Party has decided to revise party rules to extend the maximum tenure for party presidents, a move that could possibly see Prime Minister Shinzo Abe running for a third term in 2018.
The decision, which suggests a lack of powerful rivals within the party, will considerably reduce the chance Abe becomes a lame duck leader before the end of his current term ending in September 2018. The move could also pave the way for him to become Japan’s longest-serving prime minster.
In a high-level internal meeting Wednesday, LDP executives agreed to change the current party rules capping the presidential tenure at six years over two consecutive terms, sources confirmed Thursday. Each term lasts three years.
The executives entrusted LDP Vice President Masahiko Komura, who chaired the gathering, with choosing between two options on how exactly to revamp the presidency rule: either to extend the maximum tenure to nine years over three terms, or to ditch any upper limit altogether.
Based on either of the options chosen by Komura, a close ally of Abe, the LDP is expected to officially approve the amendment to the party constitution at the annual convention to be held next March.
The two ideas received equal support from 12 party lawmakers present at the meeting, an LDP source said.
The rule change will give Abe more time to realize his long-held desire of revising the pacifist Constitution and could also lead to him presiding over Japan when the nation hosts the Olympic Games in 2020.
If Abe is re-elected president of the party and serves as prime minister until September 2021, he would have served as leader of the country for more than 3,500 days including his time served during his first stint as prime minister in 2006 and 2007.
Under such a scenario, Abe would exceed the longest-serving prime minister, Taro Katsura (1848-1913), who led the country three separate times for a total of 2,886 days starting in 1901 in his first term and ending in 1913 in his last term.
The plan to extend or make indefinite the LDP presidency became a fait accompli after only three rounds of internal deliberations, with the first reportedly held on Sept. 20.
The swiftness of the decision suggests there was no vocal opposition to extending Abe’s leadership, a testament to his tight grip on power in the party.
Abe himself, it appears, set the ball rolling to extend the tenure of the presidency, having tapped LDP veteran Toshihiro Nikai as the secretary-general of the party in a personnel shake-up in August.
Before taking up the position, reports said Nikai had publicly lauded Abe for his very “vibrant actions taken as prime minister both at home and abroad” that he said would justify an extension of his presidency.
Even LDP veteran Shigeru Ishiba, who is rumored to have his own aspirations to become prime minister, sounded almost resigned to Abe’s protracted leadership when he spoke at a weekly lunch meeting of his intraparty faction Thursday.
“It’s not really something we can simply judge good or bad,” Ishiba said.
“Now that it’s been decided, all is left to the discretion of Mr. Komura. I think we should follow that decision. It’s not something we should make a fuss about at this point.”
Only minor words of caution were expressed at the faction meeting, where some lawmakers said the LDP now faced the task of convincing the public that a change to the current rule was necessary to ensure more stable leadership, a lawmaker who attended the gathering told reporters.
The the two other longest serving prime minister are Eisaku Sato, who held the position for 2,798 days (1964 to 1972) and Hirofumi Ito, who served 2,720 days (1885 to 1901).