(For more stories on Japanese politics click on [ID:nPOLJP])
TOKYO, July 6 (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso’s sagging support rates and a ruling bloc loss in a closely watched local governor’s race are fuelling speculation that his party may seek to replace him before a general election due by October.
Following are some possible candidates to replace Aso as leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and premier.
Masuzoe, now health and welfare minister, is a multilingual scholar well-versed in international and domestic politics who often appeared on TV as a commentator before winning an upper house seat in 2001. His mother suffered from dementia in the years leading up to her death, and Masuzoe has written a series of magazine articles about his experiences caring for her.
Though widely seen as competent and hardworking, he has struggled in his current post to reform the national pension system, which has been found to be riddled with errors and fraud.
A reporter turned politician, Ishihara is the son of Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara, an outspoken nationalist, but has more moderate views than his father. He was one of five candidates, along with Aso, who ran in September’s LDP party leadership race.
An advocate of sweeping reform of the bureaucracy, he has served as transport minister and minister for administrative reform. He was one of several young ruling party lawmakers who worked on steps in 1998 to revitalise Japan’s crisis-hit financial sector and is well-versed in economic policy.
Currently serving as agriculture minister, former defence minister Ishiba is known for what media call a “geeky” knowledge of security issues and has written several books on defence.
Ishiba gained a reputation as an unflappable debater when the LDP wrestled with the powerful opposition over the renewal of a legal mandate for marine refuelling in the Indian Ocean in support of U.S.-led military operations in Afghanistan.
He stood against Aso in a party leadership race in September.
A former TV announcer fluent in English and Arabic, Koike served briefly as Japan’s first woman defence minister in 2007.
She ran in the ruling party leadership race last year in a bid to become the country’s first female prime minister on a platform pledging to stick to popular former premier Junichiro Koizumi’s market-oriented reforms.
Koike has a record of switching parties. Her career began in the opposition and she was once a protege of Ichiro Ozawa, former leader of the main opposition Democratic Party.
Currently cabinet minister in charge of consumer affairs, Noda was once tipped as a possible first female prime minister.
She was appointed posts and telecoms minister at the age of 37 but lost prominence after speaking out against Koizumi’s postal reforms. She left the LDP to stand as an independent in a 2005 election Koizumi called to resolve the subsequent row that split the party, but is now back in the fold.
Tanigaki, who has served as finance minister and transport minister and was appointed deputy head of the LDP tax panel last September, is well-versed in economic policy.
A graduate of the elite Tokyo University and a former lawyer, he has said Japan needs to raise its consumption tax to fix its huge public debt. He is a relative dove on foreign policy.
A popular ex-comedian, Higashikokubaru was elected governor of Miyazaki in southern Japan in 2007 as an independent. He often appears on TV commenting on national policy issues and has his face plastered on local products to help promote sales.
Higashikokubaru responded to an LDP proposal that he run on the party ticket by offering a counter-deal in which he would do so if the party would let him have its top post. But the likelihood seems slim, especially after opinion polls showed most voters were unimpressed by the idea of his candidacy. (Reporting by Isabel Reynolds, Yoko Nishikawa and Linda Sieg; Editing by Michael Watson)