Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was re-elected Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s President for his third and final term on 20 September, securing him the prime ministership for another three years and potentially making him the longest serving prime minister in Japan’s parliamentary history.
If Abe performs poorly in coming local elections, he will be under enormous pressure to step down.
It was not a tough party leadership battle, but the election was not uncontested. In 2015 Abe was elected without a ballot, but Abe’s 2018 opponent Shigeru Ishiba received more votes from party members than expected. Of the two sets of ballots from rank-and-file party members and LDP parliamentarians, Ishiba performed well by securing 286,000 party member votes against Abe’s 355,000. Proportionally adjusted, this made 224 votes for Abe and 181 for Ishiba. But Abe’s incumbency gave him the advantage with his LDP parliamentary colleagues and overwhelmed Ishiba by securing 329 of 405 available votes.
It may seem like a sweet victory for Abe, but considering the rank-and-file members’ voting, the third term may not be smooth sailing. Party members seem bitterly divided and voices of discontent with his leadership style and policy preferences are emerging. It will be politically tough for Prime Minister Abe to push his own favourite policy agendas; competing policy demands and political challenges will call for a prime ministerial response.
Abe places high importance on his own personal and ideological agenda of amending the constitution in his final term. He wants to amend the ‘pacifist’ clause which renounces the right to wage war and virtually prohibits Japan from maintaining a military force. He wants to legitimise the existence of the Self Defence Force through recognising it in the constitution.
But while Abe’s coalition has a two-thirds majority in parliament, sufficient to take the proposal through to the first stage of the amendment process, a constitutional amendment also requires approval by Japan’s voters through a national referendum. The Japanese public is comfortable with the pacifist constitution and only about one-third endorse Abe’s amendment proposal. Securing popular endorsement seems unlikely. Furthermore, the LDP’s junior coalition partner, the Komeito, remains uncommitted to amending the peace clause.
Abe might not be able to carry through his amendment plan, as he remains under immense political pressure because of the Moritomo and Kake scandals in which he allegedly used his position for favouritism and to manipulate official financial records.
Abe faces other challenging domestic issues. Abenomics has produced limited results through a bullish stock market and rise in corporate profits, but it has not made a significant impact on ordinary people’s incomes and employment prospects, especially in regional and rural Japan, which suffer from depopulation, economic depression and a growing elderly population which requires adequate financial and social welfare support.
But the Abe administration has made little concrete change. Raising the consumption tax by another 2% next year could help meeting the rising costs of medical and social welfare, but could also hit the economy.
The LDP leadership is also well aware of some political hurdles the party needs to negotiate. In April 2019, there will be four-yearly unified local elections for most prefectural and municipal offices including those of governors and mayors. Local government elections do not generally affect the fate of government in Tokyo, but do serve as an important barometer of the health of political parties and the national government. Three months later, in July, elections to the upper house of parliament will be held. It is worth noting that Abe resigned as prime minister in September 2007 not long after his party’s poor performance in the July upper house elections. If Abe performs poorly in these elections he will be under enormous pressure to step down, given simmering dissatisfaction among party members.
While domestic policy and political challenges are enormous, Abe also faces an uphill battle in the foreign policy space. Despite his success in building a personal rapport with US President Donald Trump, with whom he met again this week, Abe is not getting any special favours from the President. Indeed, pressure is mounting on Abe to sign a bilateral free trade agreement with the US to address Japan’s $70 billion trade surplus. And Trump has not paid much heed to Abe’s request for the US President to raise with Pyongyang the abduction of Japanese citizens by the North Korean regime.
In view of such critical foreign policy matters, Abe may reconsider whether to push the constitutional revision proposal to the top of his political agenda. His ideas of a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ and the quadrilateral strategic framework involving Australia, India and the United States also may go down several notches on his foreign policy agenda.
While it seems likely that Abe is on his way to becoming Japan’s longest serving prime minister, it is by no means guaranteed: the prime minister faces tough political, domestic and foreign policy challenges.