A sense of frustration prevails as the marathon Diet session nears its end. Since it convened in January, the scandal-racked legislature has achieved very little, and the political situation has become increasingly unstable.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s popularity rating, which surpassed 80 percent at the outset of the session, is now ebbing at a low of about 40 percent. There is speculation that he may not stay in power for long after August.

Some say, however, that public approval ratings of around 40 percent are still considerably higher than those registered in the waning days of previous administrations. Others say there is no powerful candidate to succeed Koizumi — an indication that Japan’s political world suffers a talent shortage.

Now many are beginning to take a more serious look at the situation. There is indeed a growing feeling that without strong leadership Japan could sink.

This begs the question: Who is most qualified to take over from Koizumi? Speculation abounds. Here is my version — a “who’s who” of potential candidates for prime minister:

Normally, if the head of government is no longer fit to rule, power goes to the head of an opposition party. If Koizumi, president of the Liberal Democratic Party, is reaching the limit, the logical replacement will be Yukio Hatoyama, the leader of the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition party.

However, nobody has named him as a candidate for prime minister. What’s more, the DPJ is preparing for a party convention in mid-September to elect a new leader. It is unclear whether Hatoyama will be re-elected or whether Naoto Kan, former party head and now secretary general, will take over.

It is likely that a third man — policy chief Katsuya Okada or a younger dark horse in his 40s — will be elected. Already four in that age category are being tipped as likely contenders: Yukio Edano, Seiji Maehara, Shigefumi Matsuzawa and Yoshihiko Noda.

In terms of a power change, however, it hardly matters who heads the DPJ, for there is little or no chance of the DPJ beating the LDP, by far the largest party, in a Diet election for prime minister. So the real question is whether the LDP will put up a new candidate to replace Koizumi as prime minister. If it does not, there will be no change in government.

In the midst of talk that the Koizumi’s term as LDP president is reaching the limit, the names of several “post-Koizumi” party leaders are circulating among party members and their supporters. They include Taro Aso, chairman of the Policy Research Council; Mitsuo Horiuchi, chairman of the Executive Council; and Takeo Hiranuma, minister of trade, economy and industry.

There is another possible candidate of far greater potential: Shintaro Ishihara, governor of Tokyo. Naturally, the media is keeping an eye on him. In fact, Ishihara himself and people around him suggest he is willing to accept the challenge.

The rub is that Ishihara cannot run for prime minister and party president unless he resigns as Tokyo governor and wins a Diet seat. This means he has no chance of becoming the nation’s chief executive in the immediate future.

However, if Koizumi stays in office for another year, that will give Ishihara time to quit his Tokyo post and start preparing for a Diet election. As a parliamentarian, he will then be able to seek the prime ministership as well as the party presidency.

All of this requires that he time his moves carefully. Two things will be intertwined: when Koizumi steps downs and when Ishihara completes his term (it ends next spring) and tries for a Diet seat.

This much can be said for certain: If Ishihara wants to take the helm of state, he has no choice but to become a Diet member first, after finishing his first term as Tokyo governor, and then wait for a chance to accomplish his aim.

In my view, it is little short of an illusion to think that an Ishihara administration will come into being immediately after the fall of the Koizumi administration.

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