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Japan contemplates post-Abe world, but rivals' positions still murky

[TOKYO] Rivals are jockeying to replace Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as the embattled Japanese leader struggles with sinking support, but so far none have offered detailed policy alternatives to his "strong defence, strong economy" platform.

Battered by scandals involving suspected cronyism, Mr Abe's ratings have slid near or below 30 per cent, dampening his chances of gaining a third three-year term as Liberal Democratic Party leader in a September vote, and sparking talk he might step down sooner.

Former foreign minister Fumio Kishida, a low-key lawmaker seen as a leading contender, edged closer to an outright challenge on Wednesday, unveiling slogans that called for "checks and balances on power" and "bottom-up" decision making.

Mr Abe, who began his second stint as prime minister in December 2012, has been criticised as having an authoritarian bent, although fans admire what they see as strong leadership.

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"I am called a man who doesn't or cannot take a leap, but ... I will show that I will act when a crisis comes," Mr Kishida said to cheers from supporters at a fundraising party. He earlier told reporters he had not decided whether to run.

Other potential successors include hawkish ex-defence minister Shigeru Ishiba; Internal Affairs Minister Seiko Noda, the only contender to say publicly she wants to run in September; and Foreign Minister Taro Kono, a 55-year-old lawmaker known for bucking party policy.

Shinjiro Koizumi, 37, the popular and telegenic son of an ex-premier, ranks high in polls but is widely seen as too young to jump the LDP seniority queue.

A reserved former banker, Kishida, 60, hails from a more dovish faction of the conservative LDP. He has been less than enthusiastic about Mr Abe's project of revising the post-war, pacifist constitution. For Mr Abe, amending the US-drafted charter - seen by some conservatives as a humiliating symbol of Japan's defeat in World War Two - has long been a top priority.

On the economy, Mr Kishida has said the Bank of Japan's hyper-easy monetary policy - a pillar of the premier's "Abenomics" growth strategy - can't go on forever and has urged greater attention to reining in the country's enormous public debt.

Similar criticisms of Abenomics have also been aired by Ishiba, with an added focus on reviving Japan's struggling rural regions. His proposals for doing so, however, have so far lacked details.

Mr Ishiba, 61, favours a more drastic change to the constitution's pacifist Article 9 than Mr Abe has proposed. He has also suggested Japan, the only country to suffer an atomic attack, should discuss whether to keep its bans on possessing, manufacturing or allowing nuclear weapons into its territory.

He is popular with rank-and-file LDP members but less so with colleagues in parliament, some of whom still recall his temporary defection from the party decades ago.

In 2012, he topped Mr Abe in the first round of the LDP leadership vote with support of ordinary party members but lost in a second round in which only members of parliament voted.

The US-educated Kono, 55, has a reputation as a political maverick. That image has been dented since he joined the cabinet and appears more willing to toe the party line, although he remains outspoken on the need for Japan to wean itself from nuclear power and boost renewable energy.

MsNoda, 57, faces an uphill fight to win support in the male-dominated LDP. In 2015 she was unable to gain the 20 backers needed to challenge Mr Abe in an LDP leadership race, and Abe was elected without a vote.

But Ms Noda, the mother of a handicapped son conceived via donor eggs and in-vitro fertilisation and an advocate of a bigger role for women in politics, might be tapped if the party wants to recast itself in a "kinder, gentler" mould.

Koizumi - usually referred to as "Shinjiro" to distinguish him from his ex-premier father - could be another option for a party in search of a fresh face. He has managed to sound critical of his elders while keeping in their good graces, calling for reforms to social security to rebalance spending toward younger voters.

But he's generally seen as too green to become premier yet.

"Japan is not ready for a Macron," he said, said Jesper Koll, an economist who has followed Japanese politics for decades, referring to France's 40-year-old president, Emmanuel Macron.