Cloudy Skies Ahead for Abe Shinzō


Following his September victory in the LDP presidential election, Abe Shinzō entered his final three-year term as party head. Can he avoid becoming a lame duck in his last years as prime minister? And what will the post-Abe landscape look like? A longtime political journalist takes a look.

On October 2, 2018, Prime Minister Abe Shinzō presented his reshuffled cabinet to the public after winning reelection as president of the main ruling Liberal Democratic Party on September 20. His third straight victory in the contest for leadership of the LDP has put him within reach of becoming the longest-serving Japanese prime minister in history, and with his new cabinet he has once again set about the task of tackling the various domestic and foreign policy issues facing the nation.

The political winds have not blown entirely favorably for him, though. In the party presidential election, he handily beat contender Ishiba Shigeru by 329 to 73 in votes cast by Diet members, but only eked out a 224–181 margin of victory in voting by regional party members. And in the gubernatorial election held just afterward, on September 30, in Okinawa Prefecture, he saw the LDP’s preferred candidate Sakima Atsushi go down to Tamaki Denny, who ran on an anti–US base platform going against the ruling party’s preferred policy.

Given these political setbacks, it is no easy matter for Abe to put himself forward as the face of his party as it heads toward the major showdown of next year’s House of Councillors election. In determining the members of his new cabinet, he drew considerably on politicians belonging to the LDP factions that had supported him in the presidential contest, a method that could expose his government to the risk of scandalous statements or actions by unseasoned politicians thrust into ministerial offices. The opposition parties, meanwhile, appear to be girding themselves for battle in the extraordinary Diet session slated to begin in late October; Abe could find himself facing serious struggles right away.

Ishiba Puts Up a Good Fight

Once it was clear that the LDP presidential election was to be a one-on-one contest with Ishiba Shigeru, the Abe camp began signaling its confidence in a victory by a three-to-one vote ratio. This was an attempt to drain the political momentum of Ishiba, the one party member willing to challenge a sitting prime minister in this way, thereby maintaining Abe’s position as the single focus of power in the party to enhance his chances of pushing through his proposed revisions to the Japanese Constitution, including a passage explicitly describing the Self-Defense Forces as Japan’s military.

In the end, though, Abe garnered 553 votes to Ishiba’s respectable 254. The prime minister did win an overwhelming 82% of the votes cast by Diet members, but took a smaller majority—just 55%—of those from regional party members. Ishiba, in turn, won far more than the 200 total votes his camp had been aiming for, winning praise within the party for putting up a good fight. He also won more votes than Abe in 10 of the country’s 47 prefectures, including his home ground of Tottori. The Abe side’s election blueprint, involving an overwhelming victory to shore up the foundation for the administration’s work, came to naught in the end.

Going into the election, observers were saying that a complete defeat could even pose a threat to Ishiba’s political viability going forward. By doing as well as he did, though, he managed to stake a continuing claim to the mantle of a potential successor to Prime Minister Abe. Still, it is too early to state that his strong showing in the contest was thanks solely to his own broad power base. The results of various public opinion polls show clearly that Abe is being weighed down by criticism that he has not offered convincing explanations for his role in the scandals related to an advantageous land deal for school operator Moritomo Gakuen and a veterinary school construction permit for Kake Gakuen. Added to this was the revelation during the presidential election that then Minister of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries Saitō Ken—a member of the Ishiba faction led by Abe’s opponent—was pressured by a pro-Abe lawmaker to resign his post for his lack of support for the prime minister. The media focus on untoward tactics from Abe’s camp did no favors to his campaign. A dispassionate look at the election results shows them to be an indication of dissatisfaction in the party with Abe’s political stances and the stifling sense that he is the singular pole of LDP power.

Defeat for the Ruling Party in Okinawa

One of the first major events on the political calendar after the LDP presidential election was the September 30 Okinawa gubernatorial election. This provided an infelicitous start to Abe’s final three-year term as party president.

Tamaki Denny—the candidate backed by the opposition parties on the national stage and a vocal opponent of the move of the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from Ginowan to Henoko in the city of Nago, also in the prefecture—crushed his main opponent by some 80,000 votes to take the governor’s office. The Abe administration, which supports the base move, has publicly chalked up this loss to a “lack of name recognition” for Sakima Atsushi, the candidate backed by the ruling coalition parties. But this argument does not mesh with the massive effort expended during campaigning, which saw national party figures like Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide and LDP Secretary General Nikai Toshihiro making numerous appearances in Okinawa Prefecture, along with Sōka Gakkai, the religious organization behind coalition partner Kōmeitō, throwing its full weight behind the Sakima campaign.

The drubbing Sakima took in the contest despite these efforts was described by one former cabinet member as “a serious blow” to the ruling coalition. It was also a sign that if the opposition parties manage to rally around particular candidates in the single-member districts in next year’s House of Councillors election, they can take the fight to the LDP in no small number of districts nationwide, just as Tamaki was able to in the gubernatorial contest.

This “Okinawa shock” would also impact the decisions Abe made in selecting members for his reshuffled cabinet and for the top posts in the LDP.

Needed New Blood or Untested Neophytes?

Prime Minister Abe described his approach to cabinet selection as one of building on a firm foundation while also giving many new members the chance to make a difference. Well before the reshuffle, he had indicated his intent to retain Asō Tarō as deputy prime minister and minister of finance and Suga as chief cabinet secretary. Meanwhile, reports say, he gave careful consideration to the performance of younger party members in Diet deliberations, aiming to reward those who had shown an ability to win and hold on to their seats but had never served in cabinet positions.

The makeup of the newly launched cabinet, though, is strongly colored by the choice of members from the LDP factions that fell in behind Abe in the presidential contest. This cabinet, designed around a balanced representation of the party factions, was put together in the wake of the loss in the Okinawa gubernatorial election, which triggered worries in the LDP about prospects for next year’s upper house contest. If Abe had ignored demands to pay heed to faction politics in favor of tapping the top people for each post regardless of their affiliation, he could have diminished his own sway in the party as a whole.

This factional approach to cabinet formation is not without its risks, though. The reshuffled team now has 12 first-time cabinet members, an all-time high for an Abe administration. The opposition parties have been merciless in their descriptions of the new cabinet—Koike Akira, head of the Japanese Communist Party’s Secretariat, called it “a zero-impact lineup of unfamiliar faces and faces we have seen too much of”—and they are preparing to take the fight to the untested and potentially vulnerable newcomers in Diet questioning, as well as to Asō Tarō, who held on to the finance portfolio despite calls for him to take responsibility for his ministry’s falsification of documents related to the Moritomo land deal. Abe proudly presented his choices as “a cabinet where every member takes the field to open the way to a new era for Japan,” but voices are already being heard from the ruling coalition wondering whether this team will even be able to make it through the budget committee hearings that are first on the legislative schedule.

Taxes at Home, Troubles Abroad

During his final term as LDP chief, Prime Minister Abe is placing top priority in the domestic policy field on reforms to Japan’s social security systems covering all generations, stressing his intent to see them through within the next three years. One major plank of this platform will be work reforms enabling the continued employment of workers aged 65 and older; in the summer of 2019, the government aims to issue a cabinet resolution presenting a three-year timetable to roll out this change. Abe is positioning social security reforms, including those to the nation’s employment systems, as part of a growth strategy for Japan—the area that has shown the least progress among the “three arrows” of his Abenomics efforts to revitalize the Japanese economy and society.

Indeed, efforts to spark sustained growth have not proved entirely successful so far. The Bank of Japan’s quantitative easing carried out at a “different dimension” has driven down the yen on exchange markets and lifted stock prices, but has not brought about the targeted 2% inflation, meaning that Prime Minister Abe cannot claim success in breaking Japan free from its deflationary state. At an extraordinary cabinet meeting on October 15, he announced that the consumption tax would be hiked from its current 8% to 10% in October 2019, as planned. But there has been no change in the stipulation set by the government—as voiced by Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga, the hike will take effect “assuming there is no new crisis like that seen in 2008”—and doubts remain within the ruling coalition about whether Abe will really push it through this time, after two previous postponements due to fears it could cause consumer spending to crash thereafter.

In the foreign policy arena, meanwhile, uncertainty continues to grow. To date, Abe has used his solid personal relationships with US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin to seek to strengthen Japan’s alliance with America and to achieve a breakthrough on the question of the Northern Territories held by Russia since the end of World War II.

He has seen setbacks with both of these partners, though. The Trump administration has effectively forced Japan into negotiations on a full-fledged bilateral free trade agreement, despite Japanese attempts to position it as a narrower agreement on trade in goods, with the aim of prying open Japanese markets. Putin, meanwhile, at a September meeting where Abe was also present, suddenly presented a proposal for a formal peace treaty between Russia and Japan “with no preconditions,” to be signed by the end of the year. This suggestion that Russia would not consider talks on the Northern Territories came as a shock to the Japanese government, which has always premised the conclusion of a peace treaty on the return of the four islands off the Hokkaidō coast to Japanese control.

There has also been little progress with respect to North Korea. Prime Minister Abe hopes to achieve a resolution to the issue of the Pyongyang regime’s abduction of Japanese citizens, and is seeking to open a channel for direct talks with Kim Jong-un to achieve a breakthrough here, but at the present time the North shows no sign of responding to Japan’s overtures.

Rough Sailing Ahead in Constitutional Waters

At his press conference on October 2, Prime Minister Abe stated his desire to deliver an LDP proposal on revision of the Japanese Constitution to the Diet during its upcoming extraordinary session. This revised basic law has long been the legacy he seeks to craft during his time in office, but his own coalition partner Kōmeitō seems to be applying the brakes. Kōmeitō head Yamaguchi Natsuo has rejected the idea of engaging in preliminary talks with the LDP on the question of revision, stating that “it is not appropriate to decide matters related to the Constitution of Japan by working in advance outside the Diet and bringing those results into the chamber after the fact.” In response to this, Abe has been forced to back down from his ambitious plan, pledging instead to merely “offer an explanation” of the proposed changes to four of the articles, including an explicit reference to the Japanese Self-Defense Forces as Japan’s military in the war-renouncing Article 9.

Next year the political calendar includes the unified local elections and the House of Councillors election. Japan will also see major events in its imperial system as Emperor Akihito steps down from the throne and his son, Crown Prince Naruhito, becomes Japan’s new emperor on May 1. Given all this, more and more people are coming to see it as unlikely that the LDP will be able to bring forth a proposal for constitutional revision before the upper house contest in July.

Who Comes After Abe?

Observers within the LDP have taken a particular interest in Abe’s selection of former Health, Labor, and Welfare Minister Katō Katsunobu, a six-term member of the House of Representatives, to chair the party’s General Council, a key post. Katō has the full trust of the prime minister, who has tapped him several times to serve as deputy chief cabinet secretary and in various cabinet posts. In addition to Ishiba, who challenged Abe for party leadership this year, potential post-Abe leaders include names like Kishida Fumio, the chair of the LDP’s Policy Research Council who chose not to run for the presidency and gave his support to Abe instead, and Motegi Toshimitsu, who held on to a position in the reshuffled cabinet as minister in charge of social security reform, a key portfolio for this government, and minister of state for economic and fiscal policy. Now Katō appears to have pushed his way into this group. One view holds that Abe is seeking to groom Katō, who comes from a different faction, as a potential future LDP leader in order to maintain his own broad influence within the party after he steps down from the top post.

One key theme of the next LDP presidential contest is certain to be a changing of the guard—the arrival of a new generation of leaders for the party. In this sense, there is a solid chance that the young and charismatic House of Representatives member Koizumi Shinjirō, who came out in support of Ishiba just before this year’s vote, could make a serious run in the next election, scheduled for three years from now. Since being named foreign minister in August 2017, Kōno Tarō has made little secret of his own post-Abe ambitions while building his own track record of leadership in a vigorous schedule of visits to foreign countries and meetings with his foreign counterparts, often carried out in his fluent English.

“It all feels sort of like the beginning of the end,” says one government official I spoke to about this month’s cabinet picks, which did not do much to buoy the image of the administration. Abe has three more years ahead of him as prime minister. Can he stave off lame duck syndrome and ensure that he continues to wield influence with those who would succeed him, all while bringing his premiership to a successful conclusion? Next year’s House of Councillors election will go a long way toward answering these questions.

(Originally published in Japanese on October 10, 2018. Banner photo: Prime Minister Abe Shinzō bows to members of the Liberal Democratic Party after securing his third election as party president on September 20. Taken at LDP headquarters in Nagatachō, Tokyo. © Jiji.)

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