The Liberal Democratic Party has begun formal discussions on changing the rules that prohibit its president from serving more than two consecutive three-year terms, with proponents apparently seeking to enable Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to stay in office beyond the September 2018 end of his second term. Since this is essentially an internal matter for a political party, the decision is up to its members. However, given the LDP’s long hold on power, its rules on presidential terms effectively determine the tenure of the prime minister.

The LDP’s rules in this matter have in fact been amended a number of times since the party’s founding in 1955. But unlike past changes, these discussions could pave the way for extending the tenure of an incumbent party chief already in his last term. The party should make clear whether the possible change in rules is being mulled for its own merits and demerits, or whether its members simply want Abe to remain in power longer.

The party’s political system reform headquarters, whose executive members, led by deputy chief Masahiko Komura, kicked off the talks on Tuesday, reportedly plans to wrap up the discussions by the end of the year and propose possible changes at the party’s convention next year. The discussions are expected to revolve around two proposals — one to allow the party chief to run for up to three consecutive three-year terms, and the other to eliminate the restrictions on the number of terms that the president can serve in a row.

The current rule banning more than two consecutive terms was introduced in 1980 — after Prime Minister Eisaku Sato’s eight-year run at the party’s helm from 1964 to 1972 incurred criticism that it had gone on too long and created problems associated with concentration of power in one leader. The duration of a single term has fluctuated between two and three years in the course of the party’s history — with the current three-year term introduced in 2003.

However, there have since been only two LDP presidents who completed the maximum two terms — Yasuhiro Nakasone (1982 to 1987) and Junichiro Koizumi (2001 to 2006) — with most others either quitting midway through their tenure to take responsibility for election losses or giving up seeking re-election. Nakasone’s second two-year term was extended by another year as an exception to the rule after he led the party to landslide wins in the double election of both Diet chambers in 1986, whereas Koizumi, who also scored a big win for the LDP in the 2005 Lower House election, did not agree to moves in the party to prolong his term beyond 2006.

After he took over from Koizumi as LDP chief, Abe’s first stint as prime minister lasted just a year. His exit in 2007 was the beginning of the revolving-door political leadership in this country that saw six prime ministers in as many years through 2012 — including those who headed the Democratic Party of Japan-led administrations.

Since Abe returned to the LDP’s helm in 2012, he has led the party to four national election landslides in a row. Last year, he was re-elected LDP president without opposition. With the LDP’s ruling coalition keeping a dominant majority in the Diet, Abe’s grip on power within the LDP appears unshakable, and his Cabinet maintains relatively strong popular support for an administration in its fourth year. It’s not surprising that LDP lawmakers would want Abe to stay in command beyond 2018. In fact, momentum for changing the term limit built up after Toshihiro Nikai — who was the first among the senior LDP leaders to advocate extending Abe’s run following the party’s wins in the Upper House election in July — was tapped as LDP secretary-general in August.

Party elders involved in the discussions deny that they’re merely seeking to keep Abe at the helm. They say most major political parties in other advanced parliamentary democracies do not set term limits for their presidents, and that paving the way for a long-running administration would serve Japan’s diplomatic interests. Such an argument seems to make sense. There appears to be no rational grounds for capping a political party’s presidential terms.

One point about the LDP presidency rules should be sorted out. When Abe was re-elected party chief a year ago, the rule at that point dictated that the new three-year term he was given was going to be his last. It must have been the understanding of LDP lawmakers who either supported his re-election or who gave up challenging him that he would not be running again in 2018. Altering this regulation now — and making it applicable to Abe — smacks of changing the rules in the middle of the game.

And if the purpose of changing the party’s rules is to keep him in charge beyond 2018, the discussions being held now — with two more years to go in his current term — seem to once again symbolize the dearth of competition or next-generation contenders within the LDP, which may not bode well for the party’s future.

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