Reforms and Results: A Look at Abe’s Staying Power as Prime MinisterPolitics
Abe Approaches Record for Time in Office
It has been six years since Abe Shinzō became prime minister for the second time. Assuming that he completes his current three-year term as the president of the Liberal Democrat Party, the cumulative number of days he will have spent in office, including a one-year stint ending in 2007, will exceed that of Katsura Tarō (prime minister three times during the years 1901–13), making him the longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history.
In this article, I look at some of the reasons why Abe has succeeded in maintaining his position over such a long period, review his achievements to date with a focus on domestic politics, and consider some of the challenges he is likely to face in the immediate future.
How Reforms Have Buttressed Abe’s Powers
One reason for Abe’s longevity is the stronger powers granted to the prime minister since the 1990s. Electoral reforms in 1994 changed the election system for the House of Representatives from the SNTV (single nontranferrable vote) system to a system combining single-member districts with proportional representation. At the same time, regulations on political funding were tightened and a system of public subsidies for political parties was introduced.
These reforms transformed the power structure within the LDP. In the days of the SNTV system, independent candidates could more easily win election to the Lower house. The shift to a system combining single-member districts with proportional representation changed the nature of elections. In other words, under the new electoral system, elections for the Lower House have become party centered. In addition, tighter regulations on political funding have made it more difficult for independent candidates to raise funds.
This significantly increased the powers of the ruling party leadership, in particular the prime minister, to endorse candidates and decide how political funds should be allocated.
It is now more difficult for LDP legislators and factions within the party to oppose policies put forward by the prime minister. In addition, under the so-called 1955 system, which had existed before the reforms, the prime minister had to respect recommendations from factions when forming his cabinet. The reforms, however, have weakened factions, making it possible for the prime minister to choose cabinet members who have policy preferences close to him.
The reorganization of government ministries in 2001 further strengthened the prime minister’s prerogatives in terms of formulating policies and provided him with more institutions and human resources. Revisions of Article 4 and Article 12 of the Cabinet Law gave the prime minister greater authority to formulate policy himself and officially expanded the policymaking powers of the cabinet secretariat. The reforms also established the Cabinet Office and granted the prime minister the ability to appoint special ministers of state to coordinate important policies.
Under the previous system it was ministers who had power to propose policies, and the official role of the prime minister was largely restricted to coordinating and taking a leadership role after policy had been decided. However, the reforms enabled the prime minister to use the Cabinet Secretariat and Cabinet Office to take the lead in formulating policy.
As prime minister, Abe has made skillful use of these new prerogatives in running his government. His cabinet has also taken a number of steps to increase further the legal privileges of the prime minister. In November 2013, Abe successfully passed an amendment to the Security Council Law, duly establishing the National Security Council and the National Security Secretariat in the Cabinet Secretariat in December 2013 and January 2014, respectively. In April 2014 the Diet approved civil service reform bills, and in May a new Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs was established, giving the prime minister new powers to influence important appointments in the various ministries and introduce new government offices.
Prime Minister Abe, however, has not just relied on the strengthened prerogatives and reformed institutions to run his administration. Compared to his first administration, he improved the way in which he manages his government to ensure that it runs smoothly. First, Abe takes care to maintain smooth communication among the key figures within the government. For example, the prime minister, the chief cabinet secretary and deputy cabinet secretaries, and the prime minister’s secretaries now meet regularly.(*1)
Second, Abe restricts the number of important policies the government formulates at one time and has worked hard to communicate clearly to the electorate what the government is trying to achieve at a given time. In his first administration, he suffered from an overambitious agenda, which included structural reforms, measures to tackle social inequality, education reform, national security policy reform, and possible revision of the Constitution. It was difficult for voters to understand what the government’s objectives were, and the prime minister and cabinet often fell under various criticisms as a result. For example, the Basic Policies for Economic and Fiscal Management and Reform announced in 2007 were widely criticized as an unsatisfactory mishmash that tried to please everyone.(*2) There were also criticisms of the prime minister’s ability to manage the government, and of his failure to exercise strong leadership.(*3)
Policies pursued under the Second Abe Administration have been much more focused. Up to the end of 2015 his government policy centered on his so-called Three Arrows package of economic policies, as well as on national security. Since autumn 2015 he has focused on prioritizing social welfare and labor policies, under such banners of “Dynamic Engagement of All Citizens” and “Workstyle Reforms.”
Achievements in Economic and Labor Policies
Next, I want to look at the government’s achievements since Abe’s return to office. On the macroeconomic side, since 2013 Japan has experienced inflation every year except 2016, indicating the economy has successfully broken out of its deflation spiral. Average GDP growth between 2013 and 2017 was 1.27%, and from 2012 to 2017 nominal GDP increased from ¥494 trillion to ¥546 trillion. In April 2014, the government raised the consumption tax to 8%; following two postponements, this is due to increase again, to 10% in October 2019.
On economic growth policies, the government has liberalized the electricity market, reduced corporate taxes, and brought in reforms to corporate governance. The government has also worked to stimulate inbound tourism, and in 2017 the number of foreign visitors reached 28.6 million, bringing at least an extra ¥3 trillion to the balance of payments compared to 2012.
In regard to the area of labor policy, the government has tightened regulations on working hours and placed compulsory caps on overtime hours. Demand in the labor market has increased, and as of July 2017 the number of employed people had increased by 4 million.
In external economic relations, an economic partnership agreement with the European Union was reached in December 2017, and negotiations on the TPP11 were successfully concluded in March 2018.
On national security, the government established Japan’s National Security Council, improving the country’s ability to formulate security policies. Also, in 2015 the government passed a law making it possible for Japan to exercise the right of collective self-defense under certain conditions.
Scandals and Other Side Effects
The strengthening of the prime minister’s powers has also had side effects, though, as illustrated by several political scandals in the last couple of years. In February 2017, the Moritomo Gakuen scandal came to light, followed by rumors in March of a similar problem involving a different education institution, Kake Gakuen. Both scandals involved managers of schools who were close to the prime minister or people around him. These facts lead to widespread suspicions that the schools had received preferential treatment and that government officials may have given these institutions special favors in line with the prime minister’s unspoken wishes. In the case of Moritomo Gakuen, the official documents relating to a decision to reduce the price of government-owned land had been tampered with.
The prime minister continues to deny any personal involvement, but not everyone has been content with his explanations. In an opinion poll conducted by the Yomiuri Shimbun in July 2018, some 77% of respondents said they were dissatisfied with Prime Minister Abe’s answers to questions about the scandals.
A Mountain of Issues Remain
What are the major policy challenges that Abe Shinzō has to tackle now that he has secured his third term as LDP president?
One issue for the immediate future will involve pushing through proposals for amendments to the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act, establishing a new visa category for foreigners with certain skills. If the government manages to get its amendments through the Diet, it will become easier for companies to hire foreign workers in several sectors, including agriculture, fisheries, construction, food services, and nursing care.
In the medium term, the prime minister will have to continue to address social welfare and labor issues. In the lead-up to the LDP presidential election, the prime minister announced that he would work on social security reforms to create a “system that serves all generations” after reshuffling his cabinet. He has already revealed that the reforms will include a set of measures to promote greater employment of people aged older than 65. The Future Investment Committee will design concrete measures from now on.
The reforms will also expand social security to working generations. When Prime Minister Abe dissolved the House of Representatives in September 2017, he declared that he would make use of part of revenue from the consumption tax hike to 10% in October 2018 to make education free. He set up the Council for Designing 100-Year Life Society, which designed a concrete plan by June 2018 to liberalize various educational services.
Respecting the plan, the Abe Cabinet will carry out several policies to reduce the financial burden for education for diverse segments of Japanese society. For example, it will make childcare and education free for children aged 3–5 from September 2019 and waive university tuition fees while introducing scholarships to cover living expense for those students from low-income households from April 2020.
In international economic policy, one important issue will be negotiations on the Trade Agreement on Goods between Japan and the United States. At a summit meeting on September 26, 2018, Abe reached a preliminary agreement with US President Donald Trump. Subsequent negotiations have already begun and will continue between Minister for Economy, Trade, and Industry Motegi Toshimitsu and US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to lower tariffs on goods. Abe and Trump agreed not to touch tariffs on automobiles while negotiations on TAG go on. Japan has thus avoided any imposition of tariffs on its cars for the time being. There is a possibility that the prime minister may have to expend considerable energy on this subject if the United States makes tough demands in the future.
The year 2019 will see full of important ceremonies, international meetings, and political events. On April 30, the current emperor will abdicate, to be succeeded by the current crown prince on May 1. An official accession enthronement ceremony will take place in October. In June, the G20 heads of government summit will be held in Osaka, while the Tokyo International Conference on African Development will meet in Yokohama in August. Between these will be nationwide local elections in April, followed by the House of Councillors election in the summer. And then the consumption tax hike is due to go into effect in October.
Efforts to Amend the Constitution
Finally, I want to consider the question of revising the Constitution—an issue that has long been of personal importance for Abe.
The LDP has already put together four amendment drafts, including insertion of a new clause referring to the role of the Self-Defense Forces in the Constitution. But during the extraordinary session of the Diet, the LDP did not dare to propose any amendment.
The question is therefore whether the prime minister intends to try to get the amendments approved any time in the near future. He may want to revise the Constitution while he has a two-thirds majority in the legislature. In this case, it is possible that he will put forward an initiative in the regular Diet in 2019. There would then be a double election involving the Upper House election and a referendum on amending the Constitution at the same time.
Any attempt to amend the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution, however, would be likely to provoke strong reaction from many in the public, making the outcome of any referendum uncertain. It is also possible that this could work against Abe and his allies in the Upper House election. Nevertheless, the possibility of an initiative in 2019 cannot be discounted—not least because it is almost unthinkable that the LDP and its coalition partners would be left with less than a majority in the Upper House after the election, however badly things should go.
The better the government’s support in opinion polls, the likelier it is that the prime minister will make a move on the revision of the Constitution. The reshuffle of party officials carried out after the election for LDP president in September make it clear that the prime minister regards amending the Constitution a very important item on his political agenda. He will carefully follow the trend in the cabinet approval rate from now on and consider the impact on the Upper House election before reaching any decision on whether the time is right to fulfill his long-held ambition at last.(Originally published in Japanese on November 29, 2018. Banner photo: Prime Minister Abe Shinzō at the Liberal Democratic Party headquarters in Tokyo, after securing his third term as LDP president. © Jiji.)