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Abe administration remains in power for longest time in Japan’s modern history; its future outlook

  • Abe administration remains in power for longest time in Japan’s modern history; its future outlook.

By Professor Yu Uchiyama

On November 20 of this year, Prime Minister Abe reached a total of 2,887 days in office. This is longer than any term recorded by previous prime ministers in Japan. Why has the Abe Administration remained in power for such a long time?

First, it has maintained high approval ratings by addressing topical matters. The Abe Administration avoided implementing unpopular policies immediately before the Lower and Upper House elections. Instead, it highlighted its economic measures (Abenomics) in order to win the elections. Thanks to the favourable economic conditions in terms of share prices and employment, Prime Minister Abe succeeded in maintaining high approval ratings.

On the other hand, the Abe Administration introduced unpopular policies such as the security legislation when there was no election pending. The recent consumption tax hike was one of these unpopular policies, but it was implemented in combination with other burden-reducing measures such as those for free education, reduced tax rates, and point-based refunds.

Second, the Abe Administration has been controlling the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in a manner that has a hold over members who are critical of the administration.

Prime Minister Abe has been exerting control over the party by leveraging his authority as the president of the LDP. He has been implementing measures that align with his policies by removing from executive positions people who oppose those policies.

In addition, it has become difficult for LDP members to criticise Mr. Abe, because such individuals may not subsequently be recognised as official candidates in elections. Given this background, there are hardly any LDP members who can criticise Mr. Abe directly, with the exception of Shigeru Ishida.

Third, the Abe Administration controls government bureaucrats through its power over personnel affairs. Prime Minister Abe established the Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs, an organisation that controls upper-level government bureaucrats. As a result, government bureaucrats are also likely to take the intentions of Prime Minister Abe and the people close to him into consideration.

Fourth, the opposition parties are divided. The previous Democratic Party of Japan was divided into the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ) and the Democratic Party For the People (DPFP). Other opposition parties include the Japan Innovation Party and the Japanese Communist Party.

Divided in this way, the opposition parties are not able to effectively present voters with a choice for replacement in a national election. For this reason, the LDP has always won the national elections under the Abe Administration.

Prime Minister Abe is now in his third term as the LDP president. With the current LDP regulations prohibiting the assumption of the presidency for a fourth term, the Abe Administration will come to an end in the autumn of 2021 unless changes are made. What are the prospects for the Abe Administration going forward?

I will start with the outlook for constitutional reform. If Prime Minister Abe intends to hold a national referendum before his term expires, he should be sure to pass the constitutional amendment proposals in the Diet within the year of 2020.

Currently, however, he is not in a position to force through the procedures for constitutional reform by overcoming opposition parties’ objections, partly because the “cherry blossom viewing party” issue has been raised as a problem at the Diet (it is suspected that Mr. Abe has been allowing his supporters and his wife’s acquaintances to attend cherry blossom parties held at the expense of the public).

Moreover, a bill for the revision of referendum law that is required to implement constitutional reform is not expected to pass the current Diet session. Given this situation, some people say that it will be difficult for him to execute constitutional reform during his tenure.

Accordingly, he may leave constitutional reform to the next administration. If the revisions are implemented, it is highly likely that he will work on revisions to other articles instead of Article 9, to whose revision there have been strong objections.

Whichever approach he may take, it is certain that Prime Minister Abe will continue to insist on constitutional reform going forward to maintain the unifying power of the Administration and avoiding falling into a lame duck situation.

Second, what about the possibility of Mr. Abe being elected as the LDP president for a fourth time, and the status of the post-Abe candidates? Whether Mr. Abe will run for president for the fourth time appears to depend mainly on such factors as the emergence of successors, the materialisation of constitutional reform and the results of the Lower House election. If there are no appropriate successors and constitutional reform is not materialised, it is possible that Mr. Abe will wish to run for president for the fourth time.

Another important thing is whether or not the LDP can win the Lower House election that is expected to be held before the end of the term of the presidency.

If it wins, the requests for Mr. Abe to continue to lead the party will be stronger in the LDP. Some members may then start to take action to facilitate his re-election for a fourth time.

Post-Abe prospective candidates include Fumio Kishida, Yoshihide Suga, Taro Kono, Toshimitsu Motegi, Shinjiro Koizumi and Katsunobu Kato. Mr. Koizumi is good at attracting public attention and enjoys high popularity. Nevertheless, he faces the challenge of producing results as minister.

Third, whether the LDP can win the next Lower House election depends largely on how the opposition parties move. So far, the CDJP and the DPFP have managed to form a parliamentary faction. The next important step is whether or not a collaboration can be established for the election, including the other opposition parties. If such a collaboration is successful, the possibility of the LDP’s victory will decline. If the opposition parties remain divided, however, there is a strong possibility that the LDP will win.

Today, Japanese society is faced with serious challenges, including huge budget deficits and the rebuilding of the social security system to cope with the declining birth rate and ageing population. Attention should be paid to how successfully the Abe Administration, the longest in modern Japanese history, is able to leverage its strengths to address these challenges.

(Yu Uchiyama is Professor at the University of Tokyo, Japan.)


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