Golden Age of Japanese Politics after the Era of Revolving Door Prime Ministers

On September 20, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe was reelected for the third time in a row as President of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has a majority of seats in both chambers of Parliament. This enabled him to secure his premiership until September 2021, extending his term in office to 10 years and making him the longest serving prime minister in the entire history of Japan. After a long period of political instability, when the annual change of Cabinet with its revolving door Prime Ministers made one’s head spin, the era of Abe’s premiership has become the Golden Age in Japanese politics.

Abe’s victory in the party elections looked convincing: he overwhelmed his sole rival Shigeru Ishiba with 553 votes against 254. Remarkably, the incumbent party president won the votes of over 80 percent of LDP members of Parliament and slightly more than of half of local party organizations. Many experts attribute such a gap in preferences to the fact that local politicians are more mindful of public opinion and criticism of Abe is more insistent, in the wake of last year’s political scandals. Members of parliament, however, supported the Prime Minister more actively hoping to get handsome dividends in the shape of high party and government offices: Abe received the support of five out of seven parliamentary parties. There is no denying that Abe’s convincing victory is a reflection of the party consensus regarding the merits of their leader, who was able to win the previous parliamentary elections five times in a row.

Although many dislike the Prime Minister’s authoritarian manner, his tendency towards favoritism in personnel decisions and unscrupulousness that involved him in scandals, the outcome of the party elections proved favorable to Abe: many voted for him to show their reluctance to face obvious change. In the absence of any political alternative, the majority regards the continuation of Abe’s leadership as a lesser evil. Therefore, the LDP-Komeito alliance keeps a clear majority in Parliament with no strong opposition. Abe ostentatiously rejected any reshuffles in the Government, including a long overdue, as one would think, resignation of Finance Minister Tarō Asō, who is directly responsible for the Ministry’s falsification of documents in the high-profile Moritomo Gakuen case.

There is a long list of Abe’s achievements that have really stabilized the economy and reinforced Japan’s international standing. However, some have expressed a reasonable disappointment about how little the Abe government managed to carry out despite a stable and decisive majority in both chambers of    Parliament. The Abe government did not succeed in reversing the unfavorable trends that Japan has faced in the recent decade: the country is still looked upon as a power in decline with a weakened economy, weakened international competitiveness of its companies and inertia in international politics.

Abe will face tough challenges next year. First of all, there is the revision of the post-war Constitution, which should be addressed by 2020. The prime minister named this to be his top priority last year. During his election campaign he stated his intention to submit several draft constitutional amendments to Parliament, including on the legal status of the Self-Defense Forces. It is noteworthy that Komeito, the LDP’s coalition partner, is extremely wary of changes to the Constitution.

As early as this fall Abe is going to present his draft constitutional amendments to Parliament. Since the parliamentary opposition also has parties advocating constitutional change, Abe has a chance of achieving his goal because the two thirds majority necessary to achieve it already exists in both chambers. It should also be kept in mind that changes to the Constitution require approval by a national referendum and according to the polls almost half of the Japanese public is opposed to Abe’s plans. Although the LDP electorate presents the opposite picture, it is still far from unanimous: a half of it approves Abe’s plans for the Constitution and approximately 30 percent are against them. However, it should be noted that for most Japanese the constitutional issue is not a priority – according to the Asahi Shimbun survey conducted in September merely 8 percent of respondents called the constitutional issue a priority item on the electoral agenda at the recent party elections (the last item in the list of six questions offered to the respondents).

In domestic politics Abe must get ready for next year’s elections to the House of Councillors. It will be another trial that will not necessarily become another landmark in his succession of victories. The first troubling sign for the leader came on September 30 at the Okinawa Prefecture gubernatorial election: the opposition candidate won despite the efforts of the leading party.

As expected, economic and social issues will be the top priority for Abe. The Japanese economy is experiencing a boom that is second in duration in the country’s post-war history. Favorable trends in the economy were the key factor that consolidated support for his administration. The unprecedented monetary and fiscal stimulus program launched by the Abe cabinets, which involves massive purchasing of assets by the Bank of Japan to pump money into the economy, has brought results: the country has stable though low economic growth, the prices of large companies’ shares at the Tokyo Stock Exchange have more than doubled and the deflation issue has eased. However, consumer spending is not increasing due to the absence of growth of household incomes and domestic demand still cannot be considered as a serious source of economic growth. In addition, consumer tax will be raised from 8 to 10 percent in October, which may result in a further fall in demand and affect the rate of economic development.

The third arrow of Abenomics – the absence of visible progress in structural reforms and deregulation of the economy – remains a problem for Abe. The factors preventing economic growth include the ageing population and a rapid decrease in working age population, employment problems related to an unheard-of share (over 40 percent) of temporary workers, regional development disparity, a large number of depressed regions requiring major budgetary support, etc. The government must reform labor laws, achieve a radical reform of the social security system, create more attractive conditions for recurrent employment of elderly workers, and develop financially sound pension and healthcare systems in order to preserve social stability. It is so far unclear how these issues will be resolved. Comments by Abe have been confined to highly vague promises to reform the social security system within the next three years in order to adapt it to the 100-Year Life Society.

In foreign policy the Abe government is facing equally complicated challenges. First, it involves building more balanced relations with China and the United States. A security agreement remains a cornerstone of Tokyo’s foreign policy; nevertheless the degree of trust to its overseas partner has substantially declined: Trump’s policy has given rise to doubts about his reliability in trade and economic relations, as well as security. With regard to East Asia, Abe prioritizes the preservation of Japan’s key positions in the regional economy and politics. He has emphasized as his top priority the issue of abductions, which puts the organization of a meeting with the North Korean leader at the top of his agenda.

As for relations with Russia, Abe has stated his determination to resolve the peace treaty issue. Nevertheless, given Japan’s negative response to Vladimir Putin’s proposal to enter into such a treaty without any preliminary conditions by the end of this year, it is hard to expect from the Japanese Prime Minister to make any substantial headway.

Shinzō Abe has been elected Prime Minister for his last term. The next three years be his last chance to finish everything he has started. In fact, the phenomenon of Abe’s political leadership calls for thought. However, there is no escaping the fact that under Shinzō Abe Japan has been transformed largely owing to this extraordinary and in many respects outstanding political figure who will undoubtedly leave a mark in the history of his country.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.