Rumors and speculation are swirling in Nagata-cho, Japan’s political nerve center. The hot topic: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s plan to reshuffle the Cabinet and the leadership of his Liberal Democratic Party next month.
Why is Abe planning to shake up the Cabinet now? Who might be tapped for a post and why?
Here are some basic questions and answers on the upcoming reshuffle.
Why do leaders reshuffle the Cabinet every year or so?
In the LDP anyway, the main reason why a prime minister initiates a reshuffle is to reduce discontent in the party and offer posts to tighten his grip on the membership.
Traditionally, among LDP governments, Lower House members who have served at least five terms or Upper House members who have notched three, are eligible for a Cabinet post, regardless of ability.
This seniority-based system was formed during the LDP’s nearly four decades in power, from its inception in 1955 to the early 1990s.
Most lawmakers are eager to serve in a Cabinet because it increases their name recognition among voters.
Thus, LDP prime ministers can consolidate power by doling out plum Cabinet positions on a rotating basis.
Nearly 60 members of the LDP have met the unofficial but well-known conditions of the seniority-based system. All of the current members have been in their posts since Prime Minister Abe took office in December 2012 — the longest uninterrupted stretch since the war.
Consequently, frustration has built up among the rest of the eligible members, prompting Abe to make a move to mollify them.
What about the LDP’s executives?
The LDP’s top three posts are secretary-general, policy chief and chairman of the General Council, the party’s top decision-making organ.
LDP prime ministers, who also double as party president, usually reshuffle the party executives at the same time as the Cabinet for one pragmatic reason: a Cabinet reshuffle has such a major impact on party politics that the president needs executives who can create and control the new power dynamic.
In the past, veteran lawmakers with strong fund-raising power were chosen for the three top posts because of the need to control other party members and factions.
But in recent years, given the growing influence of so-called telepolitics and the lessening importance of the factions, LDP presidents have tended to tap those who can best increase the party’s popularity with voters, not a behind-the-scenes power broker.
Examples of this new type of executive are incumbent Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba, policy chief Sanae Takaichi and General Council Chairwoman Seiko Noda.
None is a faction head nor prolific fundraiser, but Abe apparently chose them to improve the party’s image and win over voters.
Ishiba’s popularity is based on his ability to eloquently recast complex political issues in plain language in front of the TV cameras.
Noda and Takaichi were probably chosen because they are two of a handful of female LDP lawmakers and are well-known to voters.
Who’s rumored to be in, and out?
According to media reports, Abe wants to replace more than half of the 18 ministers.
Abe has said publicly he will retain Suga, his right-hand man, as chief Cabinet secretary, as well as Suga’s three deputies: Katsunobu Kato, Hiroshige Seko and Kazuhiro Sugita.
Meanwhile, political observers agree that Abe is likely to remove Ishiba as secretary-general and appoint him to the Cabinet because he is considered his biggest potential rival in the next LDP presidential election, which is scheduled for the fall of next year.
As secretary-general, Ishiba controls the party’s funds and thus exerts great influence over other members, giving him a great advantage ahead of the next presidential race.
As a Cabinet member, Ishiba would lose that power, making it politically difficult for him, as a minister, to advocate any policies that contradict Abe’s.
According to media reports, Abe has already unofficially sounded out Ishiba for the new post that was formed to handle security issues.
But Ishiba has not officially accepted the offer yet.
What other names have been floated for Cabinet or party posts?
Observers agree that Abe is likely to tap at least one woman for the Cabinet or as a party executive, in keeping with his pledge to boost the status of women in Japan’s male-dominated society.
Media outlets have speculated that Yuko Obuchi, the daughter of late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, is in the running for one post or another.
A working mother with two sons, Obuchi, from Gunma Prefecture, served as minister in charge of the declining birthrate and gender equality in former Prime Minister Taro Aso’s Cabinet. Selecting her would allow Abe to show he is living up to his advocacy of policies for working mothers.
According to NHK, Abe is also considering retaining Aso as finance minister and Akira Amari as economic policy minister. Amari is also in charge of Japan’s negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement.