Japan is not a country that is used to long-lasting leaders. As such, Shinzo Abe, who is now the third longest-serving leader in postwar Japan, is a unique figure, and some have even viewed him as virtually invincible. Now, however, amid scandals and slumping popularity his political mortality has become increasingly clear, and the fall of his premiership may also hasten the fall of his government agenda.
Last year, in my article ‘Reviving the Economy or Revising the Constitution?‘, I noted that Abe may opt to pursue two objectives at once. Firstly, he would aim to revive the Japanese economy, which continues to stagnate after decades of low growth and suffers from low demand coupled with high government debt. Secondly, he would initiate the revising of the pacifist constitution that was granted to Japan by the United States in the aftermath of the Second World War; changes that have been proposed include enshrining the role of Japan’s Self Defence Forces within the constitution.
This would have been extremely difficult, even with a popular prime minister. The reasons for this are twofold. The first reason is Abe’s mixture of policies designed to rejuvenate the economy, famously known as Abenomics, have not worked as well as some have hoped. In particular, Japan’s economic issues are structural and cannot improve without structural reforms to the Japanese economy, but the ‘third arrow’ of Abenomics dealing with this has thus far been left mostly unfired and unfruitful. The second reason is most voters in Japan are more focused on economic growth, but Abe has been more distracted by his pursuit of constitutional change, which does not rank high on voters’ priorities. In fact, many in Japan, shaped by decades of pacifism, do not agree with the hawkish Abe’s proposed amendments.
Failure to deliver on economic promises while being distracted by an unpopular side agenda would have produced falling approval ratings for any administration in any country. This has not been of too much harm for Abe, however, because of the inept state of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan. This has left Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic party with no real adversary for the past four and a half years of Abe’s tenure. But finally this state of affairs is changing, and it is due to a self-inflicted wound: Abe and his wife have been embroiled in two increasingly damaging scandals that reek of cronyism, which has quickly tanked his popularity with the public.
Also significant is the rise of alternate power centres, namely that of the popular Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike. Abe was popular relative to the DPJ, but interviews with voters showed they cast their votes for the LDP because there was no alternative, for Abe was the only stable hand in Japanese politics. Koike, however, was formerly a member of the LDP, but broke with the party and ran against an LDP endorsed candidate to win the governorship of Tokyo. She has since formed a new party, the Tomin First no Kai (‘Tokyo Citizens First’), which won a sweeping victory in recent local elections in Tokyo that left the LDP reeling. Newspapers and the media in Japan perceived this race as a bellwether for the ruling government’s popularity, hence it was easy to draw the conclusion that Abe’s position may soon be unsustainable. The prime minister himself has taken a hint, offering his apologies and promising a reshuffle of the cabinet.
Whether or not Abe will have to resign soon is unclear. Watchers of Japanese politics have noted that an approval rating of below 30% is often the ‘death zone’ for prime ministers, and rarely do they recover from such a downward fall. What is clear is that with his invincibility punctured, Abe will find it much more difficult to run for re-election as the president of the LDP in September next year, and in the subsequent general election. He hopes to remain as prime minister until 2020, when he hopes that Japan’s economy will be revived, the constitution will be revised, and the Olympics can be held in Tokyo as a crowning celebration. This looks unlikely in the face of recent events.
But who can replace him? Yuriko Koike has been hailed as a new alternative to Abe, but she is unlikely to become prime minister anytime soon. First, she has only been Tokyo governor for a year and the public will be waiting to see what she is able to achieve. Second, Koike’s party is still a Tokyo-only local party and it will take tim for her to build a more national following, if she desires to do so. It was possible for her to challenge the LDP in Tokyo, but to do so nationwide is another task altogether. Finally, Koike’s term will expire shortly before the Tokyo Olympics, and she would most likely want to preside over the event she had worked towards for so long, requiring her to run for re-election. Instead, it is more likely that Abe will be replaced by another member of the LDP.
Regardless of who will ultimately replace Abe, his new political vulnerability and the possibility of his downfall will have repercussions both in Japan and worldwide.
The effect on Japan’s economy and domestic affairs: Abe is most closely associated with his Abenomics policy platform, which he has followed more or less consistently in his time as prime minister. There would be no commitment, however, that the next prime minister would have to follow any of Abe’s policies with any degree of consistency. Critics of Abenomics would view that some of his policies have been short-term fixes that are unnecessary and do nothing to solve the underlying issues. But Abe’s work with structural problems in the economy, such as his initiation of the Womenomics programme to encourage more Japanese women to get into work, is also important for the economy’s revival. A return to political instability would mean that the Japanese government’s pursuit of structural reforms will become decidedly less effective than it already is.
And political instability is indeed likely should Abe have to quit. Abe had actually been prime minister before in 2006, but resigned due to health problems and falling popularity. That heralded the start of the era of the ‘revolving door’ prime ministers where a quick succession of Japanese premiers resigned after barely a year, a period which ended only with Abe’s return to the job in 2012. The return to ‘revolving door’ politics would do nothing to restore confidence in the Japanese economy, and it is unsatisfactory for the pursuit of long-term goals. As stated in an article from 2011 by The Atlantic:
Japan’s political culture of existential popular accountability, in which any politician could feel compelled to resign at any time if popular opinion turns, might be more democratic — in a sense, Japanese choose whether or not to reelect every time they answer an opinion poll — but is it more effective?…At some point, government officials must be allowed to do what they think is right, not merely what is popular, if that government is to function. But whoever succeeds [then prime minister] Kan, knowing that a dip in approval would mean widespread expectations of resignation, will feel pressured to maintain day-to-day popularity at all costs. Japan’s problems are too vast, and its strengths too great, to be ruled by something as capricious and frivolous as the whims of the majority.
The effect on international affairs: amending the constitution has mostly been Abe’s pet project. His grandfather, after all, had been an important official during the war and had later served as prime minister, meaning that Abe was firmly imprinted with a nationalist, right-wing background. To this end, Abe has already pushed through some reforms, such as that of collective security, where Japan’s Self Defence forces would be permitted to go abroad to defend an ally. This is significant as it represents the success of a push by the US to make Japan more responsible for its own security, and to be more involved in maintaining the balance of power between the Chinese and the US and their allies in the Asia Pacific. Further amendments to the constitution would most likely make clearer this responsibility. With Abe’s position so precarious, it is unlikely that he will have the political capital necessary to expend on a project as unpopular as amending the pacifist constitution. As such, moves to make the Self Defence forces more like a constitutional conventional army will be stalled, continuing the need for large US involvement in the region.
A politically unstable Japan will also be less able to effectively deal with the geopolitical challenges that have arisen in the Asia Pacific. One is the management of the rise of China. Perhaps with Abe gone the Sino-Japanese relationship will be better, because Abe’s constant visits to Yasukuni Shrine, which house the spirits of Japan’s wartime dead, have repeatedly angered China. But if prime ministers are to rise and fall in quick succession again, Japan will be unable to formulate an independent long term strategy and instead will have to lean on the US, whose foreign policy is currently incoherent as a result of the turmoil in the White House and the State Department. Second is the management of North Korea, whose nuclear missiles are becoming more and more frequent and increasingly closer to Japan’s shores.
With Shinzo Abe less than invincible, the tectonic plates of Japanese politics is finally moving again. What happens as a result will be significant not only for Japan, but the rest of the world.