Author: Tobias Harris, Sasakawa Peace Foundation
2015 has been a year of resilience for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Consider what he has faced: a contentious debate over national security reforms, widespread opposition to nuclear reactor restarts, a pension record hack that played on public privacy fears, and an economy struggling to gain momentum. Despite these challenges, Abe was reelected in September to a second term as president of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and thus able to continue his prime ministership, without facing a single challenger. And he will likely end the year with a cabinet approval ratings just shy of 50 per cent.
It is increasingly clear that Abe is the most powerful prime minister that Japan has seen in decades, if not ever. Abe has not only benefited from two decades of reform to bolster the power of the prime minister’s office, cabinet secretariat and other executive institutions, but he also faces a political landscape that has created a unique opportunity for a prime minister to use these expanded powers.
The LDP, whose 60-year history has been characterised by infighting among factions and party leaders, has been either unwilling or unable to challenge the Abe’s policy initiatives. While Abe deserves credit for adept personnel decisions in senior party leadership positions, he has also benefited from a lack of credible challengers for the party presidency.
A recent poll by newspaper Asahi Shimbun of LDP supporters shows just how shallow the party’s bench is. Asked who they wanted to be the next party leader, 52 per cent could not say. Shigeru Ishiba, whom Abe defeated for the LDP presidency in 2012, was the only politician with double-digit support at 18 per cent. Abe himself actually tied for second at 7 per cent with Shinjiro Koizumi, the son of former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi. Seiko Noda, the only LDP member who considered running against Abe in September, polled only 1 per cent.
What’s more, Abe’s political opposition continues to spend more time fighting among themselves than challenging the government. Despite being on the right side of public opinion on Abe’s controversial national security legislation, opposition parties such as the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and the Japan Innovation Party (JIP) were unable to translate their resistance into wider public support. Instead the aftermath of the parliamentary debate has seen a new round of infighting within the opposition bloc.
DPJ leader Katsuya Okada is facing a bitter fight with the DPJ’s right wing, which opposes Okada’s discussions with the Japanese Communist Party (JCP). Instead, the right wing would prefer to see the DPJ dissolved entirely and its members join JIP members to form a new centre-right opposition party. None of this bodes well for the opposition in the upcoming upper house election in mid-2016 or in the rumoured lower house snap election that could accompany it.
It is still difficult to say what Abe’s enduring achievements will be. He is unlikely to successfully revise the Article 9 ‘peace clause’ of Japan’s constitution, his longstanding political dream, both because of the difficulties to passing constitutional amendments through the Diet and public opposition to revision.
And while ‘Abenomics’ may have helped to cement Abe’s comeback, each of its three arrows suffered significant setbacks in 2015. Inflation has slowed again, which has raised questions about the Bank of Japan’s ability to reach its 2 per cent target rate. Fiscal policy is no longer expansionary, but the government has struggled to articulate how it will achieve its goal of a primary surplus by the 2020 financial year. Although the ‘third arrow’ has had some successes — a new corporate governance code and Japan’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement — progress in other areas, most notably labour market reform, has been lacking.
Even the 2020 Tokyo Olympic games, which should have been an obvious piece of Abe’s legacy, faced a setback in 2015 due to cost overruns for the Olympic stadium, resulting in the original plans being scrapped
But time may still be on Abe’s side. With no sign that the opposition parties will win the public’s trust anytime soon and the LDP firmly united behind the prime minister, his position is secure. Whether or not Abe calls a snap election, following the 2016 upper house elections he will have two election-free years until the end of his term as LDP president. Those two years could be Abe’s last chance to cement a legacy as a transformative leader.
Tobias Harris is a fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA and an analyst at political risk advisory firm Teneo Intelligence.
This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2015 in review and the year ahead.