BY REIJI YOSHIDA
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reshuffled his Cabinet for the seventh time Wednesday, trying again to boost popularity among voters by tapping fresh faces and further cement his power base by doling out prestigious Cabinet posts to ruling lawmakers — business as usual.
But this time, political observers have focused on one key question: What does the reshuffle reveal about who may be a potential candidate to be the next prime minister?
Abe’s term as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party expires in September 2021, making this potentially Abe’s last Cabinet reshuffle.
Serving as a key Cabinet minister is widely considered to be a prerequisite for any LDP politician seeking to enter the presidential race. Because of that, public attention is focused on who Abe picks for key Cabinet posts.
Abe’s choice of Lower House member Shinjiro Koizumi, a 38-year-old reformist lawmaker, as environment minister has surprised many.
Koizumi, a son of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, is one of the party’s most popular politicians and has long been regarded as a prospective candidate as a future — possibly the next — prime minister.
But Koizumi has often criticized Abe’s government, and had distanced himself from it.
Experts say the appointment will greatly improve the public image of Abe’s Cabinet and at the same time help Koizumi raise his public profile as a prospective leadership candidate.
“For Koizumi, serving as environment minister will be a step toward becoming prime minister. Koizumi has been in the public spotlight, but so far he hasn’t achieved much as far as policy matters are concerned,” said Yu Uchiyama, professor of political science at University of Tokyo.
But the appointment could also be a double-edged sword for Koizumi, Uchiyama pointed out. For one thing, Koizumi will no longer be able to openly criticize Abe’s government, as Cabinet members are required to advocate identical views on key policy matters.
Uchiyama also pointed out that Junichiro Koizumi has been known as a passionate anti-nuclear activist, and that the young Koizumiappears to be sympathetic toward his father’s policy stance.
In contrast, Japan’s overall stance is that nuclear power plants should be promoted in order to slow down or stop climate change.
Most of Japan’s commercial reactors have been suspended since the 2011 meltdown crisis at Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, but Abe’s government is set to reactivate many of them after satisfying tighter safety checks.
“So Koizumi needs to choose from the two options: to stop global warming or nuclear power plants. Being environment minister is a difficult position for him,” Uchiyama said.
At the same time, Koizumi probably had to accept the Cabinet post offer in order to improve his profile as a prospective candidate for the top job in the future, Uchiyama said.
Abe’s Cabinet selection this time also included several of Koizumi’s potential rivals, which has added uncertainty to any post-Abe political contest within the LDP.
Among such potential rivals are Toshimitsu Motegi, appointed as foreign minister, who has not tried to hide his ambition to become prime minister. Newly appointed welfare minister Katsunobu Kato is a longtime friend of Abe’s and may also vie for the role. And Fumio Kishida, who was reappointed as the policy chief of Abe’s LDP, is another possible contender
Former Foreign Minister Taro Kono, who was appointed as the new defense minister on Wednesday, has also been considered as a potential candidate in the LDP’s next presidential race.
But for Kono, his stint as foreign minister for more than two years had its downsides.
Kono was once considered a maverick politician willing to criticize Abe’s nuclear policies in public. But his reputation as a reformist was considerably damaged when he stopped discussing any nondiplomatic issues after being appointed as foreign minister in August 2017.
According to the latest poll by Nikkei, conducted last month, only 6 percent of respondents said they thought of Kono as the politician most suited to become the next prime minister — a result that tied him with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.
Over the past six years, Abe has repeatedly used the same tactic to contain political foes: make them a Cabinet minister with a dauntingly difficult task.
For example, Abe made former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba the regional revitalization minister in 2014, which stopped Ishiba from criticizing Abe while in the position.
The Nikkei poll ranked Koizumi highest, with 29 percent, followed by Abe at 18 percent and Ishiba at 13 percent.
Being popular among voters is considered another prerequisite for LDP lawmakers hoping to enter the presidential race, because the popularity of a party head now greatly affects how many seats a party can win in an election.
And that is why Koizumi is considered a strong candidate for post-Abe leadership, even though he does not have many loyal followers in the Diet.