Former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba found himself in a tough spot Tuesday, torn over whether to enter what is expected to be a hard-fought battle for the Liberal Democratic Party presidency and, consequently, the country’s prime ministership.

“There are a variety of options that would serve the people,” Ishiba said at a meeting with members of his faction Tuesday. “I want to make a decision after listening to more feedback.”

Ishiba has often ranked second in polls surveying the public on its favorite to be the next prime minister, behind vaccine czar Taro Kono. If Ishiba were to join the race, many of the party’s rank-and-file members — who are often more in tune with general public opinion than lawmakers — would be expected to support him, reinforcing his image as a viable contender even if LDP lawmakers vote for someone else.

Nevertheless, the window of opportunity for the veteran LDP lawmaker to declare his bid is rapidly closing as he struggles to obtain endorsements even from members of his own faction. Ishiba, who was sidelined over his criticism of party kingmaker and former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is said to have been advised to throw his considerable weight behind Kono to increase his chances of securing influence and perhaps even attaining a key post either within the party or Cabinet.

Whether or not he will run is being closely watched in Nagatacho, Japan’s political heart, since his candidacy, or a lack thereof, would essentially determine the underlying structure of the leadership race going forward.

Ishiba made the rounds on a number of TV news programs following Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s shocking announcement Friday that he would not seek re-election in the LDP presidential contest, but the former defense chief has been tight-lipped as to whether he will throw his hat into the ring.

Former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba leaves his faction's meeting at the Diet on Tuesday. | KYODO
Former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba leaves his faction’s meeting at the Diet on Tuesday. | KYODO

The veteran lawmaker has not made a secret of his desire to be prime minister, having run in four party presidential races. In last year’s party election, in which Suga won by a landslide, he finished last among three candidates, diminishing his standing within the LDP and prompting him to quit as head of his own faction to take responsibility. Unless Ishiba knows for certain that he stands a fair chance of winning, a fifth attempt at the nation’s highest office would be a risky bet.

Ishiba appears to understand the predicament he is in.

“I need to see a path to victory,” Ishiba said during a TBS television news program Monday night. “Nothing can be achieved if I simply participate.”

In the event that Ishiba does not run, a persistent rumor has emerged that he will offer his support to Kono. The former defense chief declined to confirm during the program whether he had secured the endorsements of the 20 lawmakers needed to participate in the race.

One complicating factor in securing that support has been that his faction, composed of 17 members, is not unified in backing him.

Masaaki Taira, a member of the faction who is in charge of public relations, reportedly told Ishiba that he would endorse Kono. Fumio Kishida, head of another faction and a leading contender in the LDP race, is expected to receive the support of all 46 of his own group’s members. Other factions, much like Ishiba’s, also appear to be split over whom they will back.

Vaccine czar Taro Kono speaks to reporters online on Tuesday. | KYODO
Vaccine czar Taro Kono speaks to reporters online on Tuesday. | KYODO

If Ishiba decides to stand down and champion Kono, there is a belief that the votes of rank-and-file members who might typically support Ishiba could be consolidated in favor of Kono, increasing his odds of victory. Such a scenario would be a boon for Kono after Finance Minister Taro Aso, the head of Kono’s faction, declined to offer his overt support.

At the same time, there remains a risk that Ishiba’s endorsement could be a liability for Kono, as Ishiba has been an outspoken critic of Abe — Aso’s most important ally. Any potential alliance between Ishiba and Kono could prove disastrous, potentially prompting lawmakers close to Abe and Aso to back candidates other than Kono.

Asked about getting an endorsement from Ishiba, Kono demurred.

“Please ask that question to Mr. Ishiba,” Kono told reporters Tuesday. “I have no answer to that question.”

However the LDP leadership race unfolds, Ishiba, 64, had from the start been widely expected to play a key role. A Lower House lawmaker representing Tottori Prefecture, he has long enjoyed tremendous popularity among the public but a fraught relationship with his party.

Ishiba — a rare vocal critic of Abe — has long been viewed as a top rival of the current party kingmaker, with Ishiba’s narrow loss to him in the 2012 LDP presidential race solidifying the animosity between the two heavyweights.

In addition to his time as defense minister, Ishiba has also served as regional revitalization minister, agriculture minister and LDP secretary-general. Ishiba’s ubiquitous presence on TV programs over the years, which have sought him out for his populist pronouncements and breadth of knowledge on security issues, has contributed to his perennially high numbers in public opinion polls.

While known as a hawk on China and keen to amend the pacifist Constitution, he has also called for greater cooperation with like-minded Asian countries — including South Korea — while sincerely facing up to Japan’s militarist past.

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