Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, right, and Shigeru Ishiba, former defense minister, raise their arms in victory after Abe was elected president of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) at the party’s headquarters in Tokyo, Japan. (Photographer: Akio Kon/Bloomberg)

Abe Set to Become Japan's Longest-Serving Premier After Victory

(Bloomberg) -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe won his third straight three-year term as head of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party on Thursday, taking him a step closer to becoming the country’s longest-serving premier.

Abe won 553 votes, nearly 70 percent of 810 votes, to defeat his lone rival, former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba.

"I feel I received a strong push to exert strong leadership for another three years, based on the results of my economic, diplomatic and national security policies so far," Abe told reporters at the LDP’s headquarters in Tokyo after the vote.

Abe Set to Become Japan's Longest-Serving Premier After Victory

The victory clears the way for Abe, who turns 64 on Friday, to carry on with an ultra-loose monetary policy that has helped Japan achieve its strongest period of economic growth since the 1990s. A crumbling opposition and the lack of credible rivals within his own party has helped him overcome scandals that prompted calls for his resignation earlier this year.

The LDP, which won a general election last October, has governed Japan for most of its post-war history, so its leadership elections often effectively select the prime minister.

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Abe reiterated his vow to focus his next term on building up infrastructure to counter natural disasters, and said he would submit an extra budget for that purpose during the next session of parliament. Japan has been battered in recent months by flooding, an earthquake and Typhoon Jebi, which pummeled its third-largest city, Osaka.

Abe also repeated his pledge to seek to amend Japan’s pacifist constitution, which has remained unchanged since its introduction under the U.S. occupation after World War II. The electorate is deeply divided on any change to Article 9.

If Abe serves until November of next year, he will become Japan’s longest-serving premier, overtaking Taro Katsura, who held the post more than a century ago. But he faces more immediate challenges.

The next round of ministerial talks on the country’s trade surplus with the U.S. is expected by the end of September, after a fresh series of threats from President Donald Trump. Abe is also expected to meet Trump during a visit to New York next week.

In another headache for U.S.-Japan ties, the LDP is also battling to keep a candidate who wants to shift a U.S. Marine base off the southern island of Okinawa from being elected governor there in a Sept. 30 election.

Abe said he would reshuffle his cabinet and ruling party officials after he returns from the U.S. Key players Finance Minister Taro Aso and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga are expected to remain in their posts, the Mainichi newspaper reported earlier.

Ishiba, who is seen as relatively hawkish in terms of fiscal and monetary policy, took more than 40 percent of the votes among regional party members, a level that will enable him to retain some degree of presence in the party, according to Yu Uchiyama, a politics professor at the University of Tokyo.

“This may have some effect on fiscal policy,” Uchiyama said. “There may be some criticism of the prime minister.”

Abe’s public support has recovered from the cronyism scandals that dogged him earlier this year, creeping up to 41.7 percent in a Jiji news poll taken Sept. 7-10 -- the first time it has exceeded 40 percent since February. The percentage of respondents saying they disapproved of him fell to 36.6 percent.

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