TOKYO (REUTERS) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe looks well placed to win a September ruling party leadership race, putting the conservative leader on track to become the country's longest-serving premier despite a challenge by a former defence minister for the party post.
Mr Shigeru Ishiba, 61, promising to restore trust in politics, announced his candidacy on Friday (Aug 10) for a Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) presidential election expected on Sept 20.
But media surveys suggest Mr Abe, who took office for a second time in December 2012 promising to revive the economy and bolster defence, has already locked in 70 per cent of the 405 votes from LDP MPs. Another 405 votes will be apportioned based on votes by rank-and-file party members.
If no candidate wins a majority, a second round would be held with 405 votes from MPs and 47 from local party chapters.
Former foreign minister Fumio Kishida bowed out before the race began, and Internal Affairs Minister Seiko Noda is struggling to find the 20 backers needed to get on the ballot for a shot at becoming the country's first female premier.
The winner of the LDP election gets a three-year term and is all but assured of the premiership because of the ruling bloc's majority in Parliament.
Mr Ishiba is counting on his grassroots popularity, but analysts say that it is unlikely to offset weak support among MPs.
Mr Abe's ratings have recovered after falling to around 30 per cent earlier this year amid scandals over suspected cronyism. He has denied wrongdoing.
Still, a weekend survey by NHK public TV put voter support for Mr Abe's Cabinet at 41 per cent, tied with the percentage expressing disapproval.
"If there is no jump in his support levels after re-election, it will expose the difference in temperature between the LDP and the rest of the country," said Sophia University professor Koichi Nakano.
Support for the LDP, at 35.6 per cent, swamped the 5.6 per cent for the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, but even more - 43.2 per cent - had no party preference, the NHK poll showed. Local elections will be held nationwide next April and Upper House polls in July 2019.
What Mr Abe can accomplish in another term is unclear, including whether he can achieve his long-held but controversial goal of revising the pacifist post-war Constitution.
"I have a hard time seeing it happen," said Mr Tobias Harris, vice-president of consultancy Teneo Intelligence. Amendments must be approved by two-thirds of each House of Parliament and a majority in a public referendum.