Abe Shores Up Power with Cabinet Reshuffle


On September 3, Prime Minister Abe Shinzō reshuffled his cabinet and leadership of the Liberal Democratic Party for the first time since assuming office in 2012. Political journalist Kakizaki Meiji considers the motivations behind Abe’s choices and the effects they will have on the balance of the administration and his party.

On September 3, Prime Minister Abe Shinzō for the first time since reassuming office in December 2012, Prime Minister Abe Shinzō reshuffled his cabinet and leadership of the Liberal Democratic Party. Japan adheres to a parliamentary cabinet system, with the Diet choosing the prime minister, who then forms a cabinet. In this system, the overlap between cabinet positions and leadership of the ruling party can blur the lines between party and administration, making it necessary to consider both as a whole.

In the past, power within the LDP was divided among coalitions of factions, with the party being seen more as a federation of different blocs than a single political entity. To avoid total discord, LDP members once considered initiating a dual presidency, with a person separate from the prime minister serving as party head. This idea never came to fruition, though, and the power to select party and cabinet positions remains in the hands of the prime minister. Electoral reforms introducing single-seat districts in the lower house, however, have weakened factional competition within the LDP and significantly bolstered Abe’s sway over the ruling party. With an eye to this current state of affairs, I would like to consider the dual reshuffle as a single political event and try to get to the bottom of what the prime minister hopes to accomplish with the shake-up. 

Looking Ahead to Party Elections

Abe’s cabinet reshuffle can to a large extent be seen as a strategic maneuver to secure his position prior to party elections slated for the fall of 2015. The two primary objectives of changing leadership were to deal with Ishiba Shigeru, who as secretary general was second to Abe in the LDP, and to rebuild connections among the various interparty factions. Ishiba is expected to again challenge Abe for the party presidency next year, and the factions will likely play a major role in determining the outcome of voting.

With the party president busy in the additional role of prime minister, the secretary general is charged with the all-important job of looking after LDP workings, not only maintaining close ties with the members of the Diet but also having a strong say in distribution of party funds and appointments for party leadership positions. During the 2012 party elections, Abe surpassed Ishiba in votes among LDP Diet members, but the latter enjoyed overwhelming support among regional party members. Given the likelihood that Ishiba would continue to build support in the Diet, previously his weak point, if left in the secretary general’s post, Abe’s decision to remove him as secretary general seemed a foregone conclusion. However, Abe couldn’t shut Ishiba out completely, as this would have served as a rallying point for intraparty opposition.

Since the closing months of 2013, there has been frequent discussion within the LDP over Abe’s agenda, with the administration pushing through bills establishing a National Security Council and the state secrets protection law, as well as moving to revise the nation’s stance on collective self-defense. In light of these events, Abe likely felt it necessary to create harmony within the party by appealing to the leadership of the various factions. 

Such thinking was behind Abe’s decisions to bring Ishiba into the cabinet as minister in charge of reviving local economies and to appoint Tanigaki Sadakazu as party secretary general and Nikai Toshihiro as chair of the LDP General Council. Ishiba had hoped to retain his position in the party’s number-two slot, as illustrated by his early reluctance to accept a cabinet position, and use intraparty discord to bolster his position. In this light, the stir over Ishiba should be considered an early skirmish in the lead-up to the party elections.

Unchanged at the Core

Prior to the reshuffle, the Abe administration was divided into three main groups. A “hands-on” group of Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide and Deputy Secretaries Katō Katsunobu and Sekō Hiroshige was tasked with tuning important policies and political issues, while an “economy” group made up of Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Asō Tarō and Amari Akira, minister of state for fiscal and economic policy, was charged with implementing policies related to the administration’s growth strategy, dubbed Abenomics. A third “ideology” group including cabinet advisor Etō Seiichi, Education Minister Shimomura Hakubun, and Furuya Keiji, minister in charge of abduction issues, fine-tuned the administration’s philosophy.

In its first year, the administration was focused on reviving Japan’s stumbling economy, with the economic group working vigorously behind closed doors to ensure the smooth roll-out of various policies related to Abenomics. This emphasis on the economy remained strong even as the cabinet at the end of 2013 pushed ahead with other hallmark policies, such as the creation of the NSC, the state secrets protection law, and shift toward collective self-defense. The high approval rating the cabinet has enjoyed since its inception comes as a result of expectations of and support for its economic policies.

A lone exception has been the prime minister’s 2013 visit to Yasukuni Shrine. Abe made the decision to visit the shrine to Japan’s war dead at the urging of Etō and other members of the ideology group, ignoring Suga’s call for discretion. The visit backfired, though, drawing the ire of China and South Korea as well as condemnation from the United States. Since then Abe has shied away from visiting the shrine to pay homage.

Although much has been made about the removal of Ishiba as LDP secretary general and his inclusion in the cabinet, the reshuffle did not actually result in any major change to the core power structure of the administration. While changes were made to the periphery, Suga, Asō, Amari, Etō, and Shimomura retain central positions in the various groups, preserving the cabinet’s internal support mechanism and allowing economic policies to push ahead. In this respect, the so-called shake-up seems more about the appearance of change than actual shifts in the structure of the administration.

Building Policy Momentum

Turning an eye to the LDP leadership, we see that Abe has again looked to someone like-minded in replacing LDP Policy Research Council Chair Takaichi Sanae, who became the internal affairs minister, with Inada Tomomi. This, however, is not the case with his selections of Nikai as General Council chairman and Tanigaki as secretary general, both of whom toe a different political line from Abe. Ishiba, although out of a leadership role, remains a top challenger for the party presidency in next year’s elections. Noda Seiko, Nikai’s predecessor as General Council chair, is not considered a rival, but her stance on family and social issues runs contrary to that of the prime minister.

The LDP leadership strikes a balance with the appointments of Tanigaki and Nikai, two leaders hailing from leading factions and having differing political philosophies from Abe. By placing influential members of the LDPs foremost factions in executive posts—a practice known as “mainstreaming”—the administration preserves a structure conducive to promoting core cabinet policies.

By year’s end the cabinet must decide if it will move ahead and increase the sales tax to 10% in October 2015—a fiscally necessary move, but one that will certainly trigger an economic slowdown. It must also prepare for nationwide local elections next spring, the party election in the fall, and the looming possibility of the lower house being dissolved. Going forward, the administration is left with few other options for maintaining popular support than to remain focused on keeping the country’s economic recovery on track. 

Abe’s appointment of faction heavyweights Mochizuki Yoshio, Takeshita Wataru, Nishikawa Kōya, and Eto Akinori to ministerial posts can be seen as an attempt to balance power among the different LDP groups. This is not the case, though. Attempts by earlier administrations to strike a balance in such appointments have relied on recommendations from the different factions and have been decided according to the size of each group (with the exception of those going against the party mainstream in the policy field). In the current reshuffle, however, factions have had a diminished say in deciding cabinet positions, with the faction of former Environment Minister Ishihara Nobuteru being excluded all together.

Attention Turns to Suga

Even as Abe has maintained the overall framework of the cabinet, the dynamics of the administration are bound to change as Suga, who retains his position as key handler in the overall running of the administration, continues to take a more central role in the cabinet.

The secretary general of the party and chief cabinet secretary are core positions for the administration, but the relationship between the two posts is dependent on the appointees’ status in the party. For Suga, his relationship with Ishiba was influenced by the latter’s position as a rival to the prime minister, but this is not likely to be the case with Tanigaki, who has focused on maintaining party harmony. This, along with Abe’s removal of Ishiba from the LDP’s number-two position, will likely give Suga greater influence in the administration.

The choices of Nikai and Motegi Toshimitsu, who was tapped as head of the LDP election strategy headquarters, also bear watching. Nikai has close connections with the upper echelons of Sōka Gakkai, the lay Buddhist and parent organization of the LDP’s largest coalition partner, New Kōmeitō. This is certain to draw the two parties closer together. Motegi may have been tapped for a top position in part for his affiliation with a major party faction, but Abe's recognition of his abilities as a capable administrator had as much to do with the selection as factional politics. Suga enjoys a good working relationship with both Nikai and Motegi, and the three can be expected to come together to in ensuring Kōmeitō support for cabinet proposals as well as in crafting election strategies.

Weakened Opposition

The reshuffle has allowed Abe to carve out an advantage for himself within the LDP. But this may prove to be detrimental by driving out critical voices and throwing the party out of balance.

The Democratic Party of Japan, the main opposition party in the Diet, has yet to recover as a viable rallying force against the administration. The DPJ remains fragmented and incapable of building lasting coalitions with other parties, with its attempts to oppose Abe’s policies petering out before even getting out of the gate.

The end of 2014 marks the halfway point until the next required election in the House of Representatives. As the dissolution of the lower house and the next general election become increasingly popular topics of discussion, we are likely to see further moves toward unity among the opposition parties. Disapproval of the state secrets law and push for collective self-defense, which have the potential to impact on the lives of the general public, remains strong; it is testament to the fundamental weakness of the opposition that this disapproval has not boiled over in a more public manner. Indeed, Prime Minister Abe’s seeming strength may be little more than the absence of effective opposition on the Japanese political stage—a fact that may signal future problems for his LDP.

(Title Photo: Abe holds his first cabinet meeting on September 3, 2014, after reshuffling his administration. Ishiba, minister in charge of reviving local communities and Abe’s largest rival in the LDP, sits on the far right. © Jiji ) 


Liberal Democratic Party Abe Shinzō economy LDP Ishiba Shigeru cabinet Suga Yoshihide Abenomics Reshuffle