Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday appointed rival and former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida to the key post of policy chief for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, as part of the party’s leadership shake-up.

The move appears to be a compromise with Kishida, bringing him one step closer to his widely rumored bid to become the next prime minister.

Kishida’s appointment as LDP policy chief is seen as a possible prelude to his bid to run for the party’s leadership election next year and thereby presents a challenge to Abe’s prospects of winning a historic third consecutive term.

Thursday’s overhaul of the LDP leadership also saw 70-year-old, sixth-term lawmaker Wataru Takeshita replace Hiroyuki Hosoda as chairman of the party’s General Council. Takeshita is the younger brother of former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita, who died in 2000.

Party heavyweight Toshihiro Nikai, 78, will stay on as secretary-general, the party’s No. 2 post.

In what might have appeared as an attempt to forestall Kishida’s bid to become party president — the occupant of that role being most likely to become the next prime minister — Abe has for some time retained the rival within his Cabinet, preventing Kishida from being vocally critical of his leadership.

Kishida has served as foreign minister ever since Abe returned to power in December 2012.

Under Japan’s political system, “the Cabinet and the ruling party are like two wheels that support a car,” Kishida told an inaugural news conference at the LDP headquarters.

“I have been on the side of the Cabinet over the last four years and eight months. But this time around, I’ve decided to take on the other wheel — the party — to support the Abe Cabinet,” Kishida said.

Given the recent plunge in approval ratings, media here speculates that Abe sees Kishida’s cooperation as necessary to keep his administration afloat. Abe has asked some of the more experienced lawmakers in the intraparty faction headed by Kishida to take ministerial posts seen as particularly tough, such as defense and education, due to recent scandals. In this way, Abe heeded Kishida’s “true wish” to depart from the Cabinet, according to some media reports.

Kishida’s departure from the Abe administration is expected to give him greater freedom in communicating his own views, including his cautious approach to revising war-renouncing Article 9 of the nation’s pacifist Constitution.

It remains unknown how much Kishida’s modest stance on the constitutional amendment could affect Abe’s recently announced timeline of revising the national charter by 2020.

On Thursday, Kishida said his personal position on constitutional revisions was unchanged, emphasizing the need for caution in future discussions.

“There are various opinions regarding the Article 9, and I believe it’s important for our party to thoroughly discuss this,” Kishida said.

Nikai, the secretary-general, meanwhile, said the new lineup of LDP executives emphasizes experience and stability.

“In terms of policy making or election strategy, we are all veterans,” Nikai said.
Asked about the Abe Cabinet’s recent plunging popularity, he said, “We will do whatever it takes to fulfill our duties and turn the tide for the better.”

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