Japan Chair Platform: Abe Presses On

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan reshuffled his cabinet on August 3 after a series of political scandals precipitated the most severe downturn in his public approval rating since he returned to power in December 2012. Abe apologized for the scandals and vowed to regain public trust with a renewed focus on the economy as the centerpiece of his domestic policy agenda. Several public opinion polls released earlier this week revealed distrust of Abe despite a slight boost in his approval rating since the reshuffle, fueling a “post-Abe” narrative in political commentary with the expectation that members of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) or opposition groups could try to capitalize on his current misfortune to unseat him in the near future. To be sure, Abe is facing strong political headwinds and could struggle to regain his footing. But he arguably also has time to recover and can do so by refocusing on the economy and national security, the two primary concerns of the public. Though it may be tempting to interpret the latest cabinet reshuffle as the beginning of a power transition, references to Abe’s political demise may be premature.
Scandals and the Reshuffle
Abe’s political standing has shifted dramatically in recent months. At the end of last year, after the LDP changed party rules to allow the party president (who serves as prime minister) to serve three consecutive terms, conventional wisdom suggested Abe could be reelected in the next LDP presidential race scheduled for September 2018 and potentially remain in office through 2021. But Abe has since been beset by political scandals that eroded public trust in his leadership. In particular, the Abe government is accused of favoritism in a case involving government approval of a veterinary department at a private university run by one of Abe’s friends. Abe denied personal involvement and even answered questions in a special hearing in the Diet (parliament) last month, but his arguments fell on deaf ears. He was also stung by his defense minister, Tomomi Inada, who was criticized for asking voters to support the ruling LDP on behalf of the military before the July 2 Tokyo assembly election and then resigned over a cover-up involving the military’s reports on Japan’s peacekeeping operations in South Sudan. Abe’s approval rating consequently dipped to below 30 percent in several polls, increasing the stakes for a cabinet reshuffle meant to jump-start his administration.
Abe kept core members of his cabinet—Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, Deputy Prime Minister/Finance Minister Taro Aso, and Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Hiroshige Seko—in place and appointed Toshimitsu Motegi, who had been serving as chair of the LDP’s policy research council, as minister for economic revitalization to help implement his strategy for sustainable growth. Inada was replaced by Itsunori Onodera, who served as Abe’s defense minister from 2012 to 2014 and is a leading voice in the defense policy debate. Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, who had served Abe in that capacity for the last four and a half years, took Motegi’s post in the LDP in what is generally perceived as a stepping stone toward a future run for prime minister. Kishida was replaced by Taro Kono, who made his diplomatic debut this past weekend at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Foreign Ministers’ Summit and together with Onodera will visit Washington next week for bilateral security consultations with their U.S. counterparts. Abe also made headlines by recruiting Seiko Noda, who has criticized his policy agenda and tried to run against him in 2015, to serve as minister for internal affairs and communications. In sum, the cabinet reshuffle was essentially meant to signal policy expertise and a willingness to include lawmakers outside Abe’s circle.
Abe appears to have gotten a small bounce from his roster changes as some polls released earlier this week posted an approval rating above 40 percent, attributed mainly to the policy expertise of his team. However, polls also show the public does not trust him and is not satisfied with the Abe government’s response to the favoritism allegations. The political opposition will likely seize on that issue and try to prevent Abe from regaining momentum ahead of elections next year. And it is already apparent that members of his party will run against him in the next LDP presidential race, which could be a recipe for a tumultuous year ahead in Japanese politics.
The Political Calendar
Abe has about a year to recover and defend his tenure as leader of the LDP. Seiko Noda has already declared her intention to run in the next LDP presidential race, and the media is speculating that Kono might also jump in. Shigeru Ishiba, who served in a previous Abe cabinet as minister for regional revitalization and also is a former defense minister known for his security policy expertise, has recently begun to criticize Abe’s policy agenda and has long been considered a candidate to succeed Abe along with Kishida. If Abe’s approval rating declines further, there is a chance he could resign, though his numbers have arguably recovered enough to avoid such a crisis scenario. Abe is closer to the power centers in the party, but his new cabinet also features lawmakers loyal to factions led by Ishiba and Kishida, who will use that stature to compete for influence.
In addition to the LDP race, an election for the Lower House of the Diet must be held by December 2018. The ruling coalition, composed of the LDP and Komeito (Clean Government Party), currently enjoys a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Diet and consequently controls the legislative agenda, and Abe will be under pressure to preserve that cushion. The main opposition party, the Democratic Party (DP), will choose a new leader on September 1 but has struggled to articulate an alternative to Abe’s policies and barely registers in public opinion polls. However, there is a buzz about a burgeoning political movement initiated in Tokyo but with some potential to compete on a national stage. Earlier this year, Yuriko Koike, the governor of Tokyo and a former LDP Lower House member, established a political organization, “Tokyo Citizens First,” to compete with the local branch of the LDP in the Tokyo assembly elections on July 2. The LDP was defeated in a landslide, and Koike’s success prompted some members of the Diet to establish a similar group, “Japan First,” with plans to register as a national political party by the end of this year. Koike will address the group’s first meeting next month, generating rumors that she might be recruited to lead the party down the road. Abe could stir things up by calling a snap election for the Lower House this fall to prevent this group or a coalition of opposition parties from mobilizing against him, though his relatively low popularity could put the ruling coalition’s two-thirds majority at risk. The latest public opinion polls also suggest Abe need not rush to call the next election, and if he heeds that advice he will benefit from a longer time frame in which to reestablish his leadership credentials.
Staying the Course
Koike gave a speech shortly after Abe’s new cabinet was announced and characterized the reshuffle as the three “Rs”: Reduce scandals; Reuse experienced cabinet members; and Refresh with new faces. One could also add another “R”: Return to the core message that resonated in 2013 when he began his current term. At that time Abe projected confidence in Japan’s future and centered his policy agenda on economic revitalization and national defense, which according to this week’s polls remain the top priorities for the public.
Abe’s three-pronged growth strategy (“Abenomics”)—centered on monetary easing, fiscal stimulus, and structural reform—has produced mixed results. Japan’s economy grew at annualized rate of 1 percent in the first quarter of this year, but a 2 percent inflation target has not been reached despite aggressive monetary easing and a negative interest rate policy. And though Abe expended a great deal of political capital to ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), generally considered a vehicle for structural reform, other initiatives such as women’s empowerment and labor market reform are works in progress. Abe pledged to redouble his efforts on economic policy in remarks after the reshuffle and will likely resume a public dialogue on Abenomics, no matter how imperfect the results thus far, to signal resolve. Abe should also tout the central tenets of his national security agenda—improving Japan’s defense capabilities, strengthening the U.S.-Japan alliance, and collaborating with other like-minded partners—which constitute a pragmatic response to an increasingly complex security environment characterized most prominently by North Korean provocations and concerns about China’s military rise. Reconnecting with the public will be no easy task amidst a trust deficit and with a narrative about the post-Abe era already taking shape. But as prime minister he is in the best position to speak comprehensively about Japan’s national interests and can use the cabinet reshuffle as a springboard for discussing concrete approaches to policy challenges. His personal priority, revising the constitution, will likely have to wait for a stronger foundation of public support.
The Road Ahead
After years of stability, Japan’s political winds appear to be shifting as Abe tries to turn the tide, some members of his party position themselves to succeed him, and new political forces seemingly emerge with an eye toward loosening the LDP’s grip on power. This is a complex political environment in which to orchestrate a comeback, and Abe’s cabinet reshuffle is but the beginning of a rehabilitation project that will play out in the coming months and determine whether he secures a third consecutive term as party leader. Recent developments may invite skepticism about his prospects, but with a clear and focused agenda he could emerge bruised yet able to continue shaping Japan’s strategic trajectory.
Nicholas Szechenyi is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Japan Chair at CSIS.
Japan Chair Platform is published by the Office of the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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