“The successor to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe cannot be anybody but himself,” said Toshihiro Nikai, secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, in a Jan. 10 interview with the Nikkei financial newspaper, thereby expressing support for Abe’s re-election as LDP president next year for a third term. Nikai’s remark may sound too premature given the length of time before the September 2018 party presidential race, but no voices of opposition or resentment have been heard among LDP lawmakers.

It’s already a foregone conclusion that the LDP will change its rule at the party convention in March to enable its chief to run for up to three consecutive three-year terms, instead of the current maximum of two terms. If Abe were to be re-elected for a third time next year, his tenure would run through September 2021. That means he could be in office another four years and seven months. In which case Abe, who has been at the government’s helm for more than four years since he returned to power in December 2012, has yet to reach the halfway point of his administration.

A number of factors point in that direction. Abe’s Cabinet retains strong approval ratings of 50 to 60 percent, with popular support for his LDP way ahead of other parties at around 40 percent. Nobody within the LDP appears to be challenging him as a potential rival. Support for the No. 1 opposition Democratic Party remains dismal — a senior LDP lawmaker has likened its support rate to the consumption tax rate of 8 percent — making the chances of the party again replacing the LDP in power as remote as ever. Backed by his long-running grip on power at home, Abe’s presence in the international community is said to be growing, particularly among leaders of the Group of Seven major powers.

Abe appears to enjoy an unrivaled grip on power, with the LDP’s political foundation as stable as anything seen in recent memory. The basis of his administration seems so solid that no criticism from anti-Abe, anti-LDP media members or commentators would make a dent in it.

Nevertheless, the future of the LDP, which is relying so heavily on Abe’s strength, may not necessarily be all that bright. Since Abe towers above everybody else, nothing seems certain as to what will happen to the party when he’s gone.

Rumored as the most likely candidate to succeed Abe is Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida. Since the turn of the year, Kishida has said on a number of occasions that he will contemplate his future after Abe steps down, but in the meantime he will do all he can serving as a member of the Abe administration.

Kishida’s words make clear that he has no intention of competing with Abe and will wait for power to fall into his hands after Abe is gone. He may have no choice but to pledge his allegiance to Abe, who controls his position in the Cabinet. Such an attitude, however, does little to build up public expectations for him. Nor is he popular among reporters since he keeps playing it safe in his remarks to the press.

A possible rival to Kishida is Shigeru Ishiba, a former LDP secretary-general. In the 2012 party presidential race, Ishiba garnered far more votes from the party’s local delegates than did Abe, before losing to him in the final ballot. However, a ranking LDP official says the situation has since changed a lot: Ishiba has been unable to build any more support among the party’s lawmakers, and probably would barely be able to secure the minimum support from 20 lawmakers needed to run in the next presidential race.

Defense Minister Tomomi Inada is no doubt one of the LDP lawmakers Abe is seeking to groom as his potential successor. But the way she handles tough questions from the opposition camp in the Diet alone creates questions over her mettle as a future leader — she will have to gain much more experience before she can be considered a potential candidate.

There may be others who want to be the next prime minister — including Nobuteru Ishihara, minister in charge of economic revitalization, and Toshimitsu Motegi, the LDP’s policy chief — but there does not seem to be anybody that the party’s lawmakers want to make their next leader.

Shinjiro Koizumi, who heads the LDP’s agriculture-forestry caucus, may stand out among the party’s junior ranks, but the LDP’s shortage of potential new leaders seems as serious as ever.

It appears obvious that whoever takes over from Abe as prime minister will be of much lesser stature in his or her clout, popular support or political mettle. That could destabilize the next administration, leaving it barely able to keep the party under control. Unless somebody emerges as a powerful new leader during the remainder of Abe’s tenure, the LDP’s future decline seems inevitable.

To make matters worse, everything may not be all right while Abe is at the helm. One of his closest associates laments that the quality of the LDP’s Diet members — especially those newly elected in the 2012 general election — is so poor that the party’s victory in the next election is not guaranteed.

In fact, there are forecasts that the LDP stands to lose as many as 30 Lower House seats in the next election — a loss that may be larger if opposition parties manage to step up their campaign cooperation. That would mean the LDP-led coalition would lose the two-thirds majority in the chamber needed to initiate a constitutional amendment — which Abe wants to achieve while he’s in office.

This is indeed a fairly serious prospect — despite the strong popular support for the administration and the LDP, and the dismal performance of the top opposition party. A look at opinion surveys carried out by the LDP shows that large numbers of voters say they support Abe but have no plans to vote for LDP candidates in their electoral districts. There may be not a few voters who say they support the LDP now but will ditch the party when Abe retires.

A close aide to Abe speculates that the prime minister probably has no intention of dissolving the Lower House this year despite all the media talk of a possible election this fall. Once Abe secures his third term as LDP chief in September 2018, he could probably be able to stay in office even if the party loses some seats in a general election. But if the party loses seats before he is chosen for the third term, challenges to his leadership within the party may gain ground, the aide says.

The LDP is now taking a close look at the situation in each of the single-seat constituencies nationwide, and is weighing replacing some candidates whose prospect for winning is too poor. This is not an easy task, however.

Abe’s domination of power may seem unrivaled, but there are creeping problems. And the future of the LDP without him is even more unpredictable.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the February issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering political, social and economic scenes. English-language articles can be read at www.sentaku-en.com .

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