Secrets behind Shinzo Abe’s Political Longevity

Shinzo Abe has become the “longest-playing” Japanese prime minister in history. He spent his 2,887th day in office and he has pledged to change Japan’s pacifist constitution before his term expires in September 2021. 

The secret is explained by his immense political flexibility, knack for tacking, adaptability, a talent for public politics, and his personal charisma.

His fine political intuition is a real plus point when it comes to choosing the right moment to implement some highly unpopular, if long overdue, reforms. As a rule, this happens after the ruling party wins the parliamentary elections. For instance, putting VAT up, measures to protect state secrets, and other initiatives submitted to the National Diet in 2015 after the December 2014 elections to the House of Representatives. Abe was able to hold successful elections to the Diet’s upper house in the summer of 2016 only after the government ratings gradually returned to normal. In the same way, Abe refrained, despite the opposition’s demands, from convening an extraordinary session of parliament in the summer of 2017, when his ratings dropped on account of his personal involvement in the Kake Gakuen and Moritomo Gakuen scandals. The elections to the lower house of parliament, which were generally successful for the LDP, were held only after the level of support rebounded against the backdrop of rising tension on the Korean Peninsula that made the Japanese stand behind the government.   

The specific features of the international environment are also good for Abe’s long rule. For example, his political position at home is strengthened in tune with the growth of tension in connection with the North Korean nuclear program that provokes new waves of fears about military security. China’s military and political rise seen as a direct national security threat is stimulating demand for strong leadership. The unstable social situation in Europe, whose refugee and public security crisis contrasts with a relatively serene and stable Japanese setting,    is also a factor contributing to Abe’s popularity. Many voters believe that they owe this to what they see as his cabinets’ sensible policy to prevent mass-scale labor migration.

The prime minister’s deft media strategy is also his great advantage. He is going out of his way to build a favorable media image for himself and has managed to create a personal brand as a “tough guy” based on promoting the idea that, to gain a world power status, Japan needs a strong personal diplomacy of its leader. A successful advertising tool is Abeconomics unparalleled in terms of its contribution to the prime minister’s rosy image, although the effects of this policy cannot be assessed as entirely advantageous.

There is no doubt that Abe will head the cabinet until September 2021, when his term as party leader expires. Many analysts are debating a possibility of a new change in the LDP Rules and another extension of the three-year term, if Trump, with whom Abe has established a strong personal relationship, wins the 2020 presidential elections in the United States. In any event, Abe is in for a long tenure of the key government office, given the split in the ranks of the opposition and weakness of his opponents inside the party.

This unprecedentedly long rule is an upshot of the mediacracy epoch that makes the domestic political positions of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party increasingly dependent on the popularity of its leader.

The reverse side of this state of affairs is the mounting authoritarianism of party governance and a parallel decay of the traditional inner-party consensus methods. The party chairman no longer heeds the opinion of faction leaders and enjoys an unprecedented freehand in decision-making, including on matters of momentous importance for the country. An authoritarian, “presidential” style of governance has prevailed in party affairs, dealing a painful blow to the system of checks and balances constituting the basis of inner-party democracy.

As a result, senior civil servants would now reach out to the cabinet chief, on whom they are increasingly dependent. A phenomenon known as sontaku became widespread; it is about bureaucrats extending preferences to their “clients” for the sole reason that they expect a positive reaction from the prime minister’s office rather than because they have direct orders to do so from on-high (this practice was exposed by the public probe into the Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Gakuen scandals).

Thus, the longevity of Abe and his cabinet has weakened the party’s checks and balances system, diluted the government’s accountability to the public, and increased the risk of subjectivism in national decision-making.

The Abe rule has brought qualitative changes to Japanese foreign policy. First, Abe has introduced in diplomacy a marked personalist feature by authoring many foreign policy initiatives. He gave his name to Japanese diplomatic successes in strengthening ties with the key partner countries, including the United States, China and Russia. For example, he presented Russia with the Eight-Point Plan that has become a roadmap for bilateral cooperation over the past five years. Or take his “golf diplomacy,” a plan to establish confidential personal contacts with President Donald Trump while playing golf. He is also famous for his foreign policy concepts, such as the Indo-Pacific Region that he unveiled back in 2007 in a speech titled “Confluence of the Two Seas,” which he delivered while paying a visit to India (later the concept was taken over by President Trump). His other concepts are “Active Pacifism” and “Globe Survey.”

Second, the Abe cabinets’ course is markedly more independent, if its policies are interpreted in terms of “dependence” or “subordinate status” in the US-Japanese military-political alliance. For example, Abe was very active in promoting relations with Russia even after the United States introduced sanctions against this country and thought better of obeying Washington’s “warnings” against a dialogue with Moscow.

Third, Abe’s diplomacy is characterized by greater toughness and pragmatism if his country’s national interests are involved. For example, the Japanese government had its way on stricter international sanctions against the DPRK (North Korea) over Pyongyang’s missile tests in the summer and fall of 2017, something that served to increase the prime minister’s popularity. The prime ministerial and government ratings got a boost as diplomatic strictures were imposed on South Korea against the background of deteriorating bilateral relations. Among other things, South Korea was stripped of its most favored nation status.

A thing to note is that polls invariably indicate diplomacy and security as areas, where the Abe cabinets have achieved the most success. For example, a NHK survey in November 2019 saw 23 percent of respondents and 33 percent of all LDP supporters pick these as the government’s top achievements.

As for Russian-Japanese relations, Abe failed to achieve a breakthrough despite the parties’ efforts to draft a peace treaty. It turned out that their positions differed too widely and no ways were in evidence for bringing them closer together. But in other fields, such as trade, economy, culture, educational exchanges, humanitarian ties, and international cooperation, relations advanced rather successfully. Hopefully, the lack of a peace treaty will not get in the way of bilateral cooperation in the years to come.   

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