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Abe Shores Up Power with Cabinet Reshuffle

Kakizaki Meiji [Profile]


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.

  • [2014.09.18]

Editorial staff writer for Kyodo News. Born in Akita Prefecture in 1961. Graduated from Waseda University. Joined Kyodo News in 1988, moving in 1993 to the Political Section, where he has broadly covered the political world, including the Cabinet, ministries, and political parties. Author of "Tsugi no shushō" wa kō shite kimaru (How the Next Prime Minister Is Decided) and other works.

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