A sand bust of Japan’s Prime Minister on an ocean beach

Can Prime Minister Shinzo Abe delay his political twilight?

  • Japan’s unique post-war political system has facilitated both its prime minister’s successes and his approaching decline
  • Now that Shinzo Abe’s popularity and his grip on the ruling party are weakened, rumors are spreading about his poor health
  • Rivals are beginning to position themselves for time after Abe

In the 72 years since its World War II capitulation on August 15, 1945, Japan has had no fewer than 33 prime ministers, which would amount to an average term length of some two years in office. Indeed, there were several who did not even last for one year. Mr. Abe, born in 1954, who already has the distinction of being the only post-World War II leader to return to office, will complete six years at the helm in December 2017. Not long ago, it looked like he could become the country’s longest-serving prime minister. In fact, he boldly made policy programs that aimed into the future after the next Lower House elections, which must be held by December 2019. Mr. Abe also got the LDP constitution changed to allow him to serve a third term as the party’s president (previously, there had been a limit of two three-year terms).

High approval ratings

Usually, soon after an election opinion polls trend downwards and midterm elections, such as the partial renewal of the Upper House, tend to punish the incumbent administration. Neither happened in the case of Mr. Abe’s second term after 2012. In fact, the prime minister achieved remarkable approval ratings. In this, he obviously profited from two circumstances.

First, the main opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), had been in deep disarray since its ignominious electoral defeat in the general elections of December 2012. Secondly, prior to Mr. Abe’s second term, Japan had suffered a stretch of six years when every year the country had a new chief executive. The electorate had obviously had enough of frequent changes and longed for continuity.

In the face of China’s accelerating rise to superpower status, Mr. Abe has begun to promote a more assertive Japanese security policy and a more proactive foreign policy

After Mr. Abe became Japan’s prime minister for the first time in autumn 2006, he resigned quickly, following electoral setbacks and increasing concerns about his health. At the time, most observers perceived him as a typically bland, run-of-the-mill LDP operator. Very few Japanese thought then the man had a chance of ever returning to power. However, Mr. Abe seemed to have learnt his lesson after his unexpected comeback in 2012. He set a number of long-term goals, first launching what came to be called “Abenomics,” a series of ambitious structural economic reforms. Significantly, he did not shirk from raising the country’s sales tax. The hike from 5 percent to 8 percent change came in 2014. For 17 years prior to that, no Japanese government had dared to touch the sales tax.

Taking stock of major demographic and geopolitical challenges, Mr. Abe also put more emphasis on national pride. The latter reflected itself in his rhetoric and in his approach to Japan’s recent history, including his dealing with the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where the souls of war criminals condemned by the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal are also commemorated.

In the face of China’s accelerating rise to superpower status, Mr. Abe has begun to promote a more assertive Japanese security policy and a more proactive foreign policy. Although United States President Donald Trump has effectively killed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade deal, the Japanese leader enjoys a good rapport with the current inhabitant of the Oval Office. Most importantly, Mr. Abe wants to change the famous “peace clause” in the country’s postwar constitution. His ambition is the removal of the famous Article 9 which stands in the way of Japan becoming a fully-fledged nation-state with the sovereign right to deploy its armed forces.

One-party rule

One has to look at the foundations of Japan’s unique postwar political system to understand both the unusual nature of Mr. Abe’s leadership and the pitfalls he is now facing in pursuing his ambitious goals. It would be wrong, of course, to seek similarities between Japan’s government and the regimes run by the Communist Party of China or the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in Mexico. Nonetheless, over the past six decades, Japan has effectively been a one-party state led by the LDP. If one were to draw comparisons, the most appropriate would probably be the Italian Christian Democratic Party in its heyday. There were free elections and a plethora of competing parties, but ultimately it was the Democrazia Cristiana (DC) that held the reins of power.

The Japanese LDP was created in 1955 by a pragmatic merger of two conservative parties, the Liberal Party and the Democratic Party. The new body adopted a few rather general and noncontroversial national goals such as economic progress, a strong Japan and a stable alliance with the U.S. Most importantly, the founders of the LDP set up a party structure that ensured the firm hold on power both on a national and local level. Unlike other parties, the LDP openly encourages the establishment of internal factions. These have their own organization and funding and operate the instruments of power in favor of their adherents. Furthermore, the LDP has a seemingly unshakable support base among farmers, a crucial factor in an electoral system that favors rural constituencies. Another pillar of the LDP is the construction industry, through which huge sums of public money destined for public infrastructure are being channeled.

Of all parliamentary democracies, Japan has the highest number of second- or even third-generation members of parliament. Practically all senior government ministers have ancestors who have sat in parliament or have even been ministers. It is not totally wrong to see today’s parliamentary system of Japan as a continuation of its shogunate tradition. The parliamentarians are the samurais, representing their local clans. The faction leaders within the LDP are the daimyos, the “dukes,” and the prime minister ultimately is the shogun.

The prime minister would not embark on reforms that were going to harm the interests of major constituents of the LDP

This intricate system now is the source of both the strength and the weakness of Mr. Abe. As long as he delivers the votes and the spoils of government, he is safe. The prime minister does not have to worry about ideological differences or substantive program debates. When at the start of his second term of office Mr. Abe announced economic reforms, experienced commentators predicted that he would implement his policies in all areas except where they required fundamental structural change. In fact, “Abenomics” turned out this way. Obviously, the prime minister would not embark on reforms that were going to harm the interests of the major constituents of the LDP. With his stronger emphasis on national interests and security, Mr. Abe also met the concerns of most LDP voters, although this is not necessarily the case with his goal to abrogate Article 9 of the Japanese constitution. This is a major issue that continues to deeply divide Japanese society and the LDP itself.

Former foreign minister of Japan meets with the news media
Long serving Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida left the government in the summer of 2017 to become chairman of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s central policy making body (source: dpa)

Uncertainty ahead

What now is Prime Minister Abe’s Achilles heel? It is the very same structure of the LDP which ensures the party’s sustained power that makes him vulnerable. Bearing in mind the seemingly terminal weakness of the main opposition parties, it is resistance within the LDP ranks that its leader has to contend with as he seeks to have the constitution amended. As LDP factions are split on the issue, the most efficient opposition to Mr. Abe’s goal is to be found within the LDP. His rivals are carefully watching his political performance and public backing: if things get tight, they will make use of issues such as constitutional reform to attack and eventually remove the prime minister.

Politics is a brutal game. Now that Mr. Abe is vulnerable, that his base both among the electorate and within the LDP is shrinking, old speculations about his health are spreading in the public domain. During his first term, the prime minister justified his early exit by mentioning health problems. It now looks like the problems that have not been newsworthy during the past four years are surfacing again.

Difficulties have also emerged in Mr. Abe’s personnel policy as well as the company he keeps. There has been much media attention on his problematic contacts with, and even contributions to, an Osaka school known for a pronounced right-wing, nationalist curriculum. More recently, the prime minister had to announce another cabinet reshuffle, as several ministers, most notably the defense minister, had found themselves under public pressure. The changes turned out to be far-reaching, involving nearly all key ministries such as the economy, defense, foreign affairs and interior. Tellingly, Mr. Abe appointed experienced politicians with generally conventional views. As if alarmed by massive reversals in opinion, he went for safe choices. The first public reactions were positive, but this need not last. The effects of the reshuffle will soon fade and the prime minister’s internal rivals will certainly not be satisfied.

Many think he could capitalize on the widespread insecurity among the Japanese electorate about the threat posed by North Korea

The opposition camp, meanwhile, is in disarray. There are no indications that things will be sorted out in the foreseeable future. The leader of the biggest opposition party, the DPJ, has resigned. The ambitious Tokyo governor, former LDP cabinet minister Yuriko Koike, has declared national ambitions with the formation of a new party following a victory in the Tokyo assembly elections. All this seems to confirm our view that there is no serious threat to the LDP coming from the opposition benches. The focus has to be on Mr. Abe’s own party and on its coalition partner, the New Komeito.

It is significant that after the recent cabinet reshuffle, Fumio Kishida, who was foreign minister since the beginning of Mr. Abe’s second term in late 2012, is no longer among the ministers. Instead, he has become the new head of the LDP’s Policy Research Council, which is a very influential position within the party’s hierarchy. Speculations that the 60-year-old Mr. Kishida is the most likely candidate to succeed Mr. Abe have gained a big fillip. That he is not part of the government is seen as an advantage in any possible leadership race. Some reports indicate that Prime Minister Abe wanted to keep him in the government, as in this situation he saw him as a lesser challenge in the forthcoming contest for control of the party.

In autumn 2018, the LDP will elect its president. Mr. Abe is aiming for an unprecedented third term. By the end of 2019, the Lower House of the Japanese Parliament will have to face general elections. The prime minister has the power to dissolve the chamber earlier, but until recently, few thought that he could repeat the success of a mid-term election like in 2014, when he rode a wave of popular support. However, there is now speculation that Prime Minister Abe might call an early election.

Many think he could capitalize on the widespread insecurity among the Japanese electorate about the threat posed by North Korea. Japan looks the most vulnerable in East Asia when it comes to the North Korean threat. Tokyo seems to be helpless in the face of Pyongyang’s aggression and doubts are increasing whether the U.S. will really provide Japan unconditional support, if push comes to shove.

The uncertainty about the outcomes of both the LDP vote and the parliamentary elections are important to the Japanese and to their neighbors, as well as the world at large. Mr. Abe has launched a number of projects that obviously will not be completed before 2018/19. Most importantly, this relates to Article 9. Interestingly, Mr. Kishida made it clear when he was foreign minister that he did not see the constitution’s revision as an urgent matter. Furthermore, the coalition partner, the New Komeito, with its solid base among Buddhists, is firmly opposed to the abrogation of the pacifist article. However, now that he may be considering holding a snap midterm election this autumn Prime Minister Abe could bet that an anxious electorate will prefer a known leader to provide guidance in uncertain times.

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