Most Japanese prime ministers come and go, their names soon forgotten. Yasuhiro Nakasone was an exception in the 1980s, as was Junichiro Koizumi in the early years of this century. Now, Shinzo Abe could be emerging as one of the rare strong ones after his decisive election victory.
It is a surprising turn for a politician who flopped in his first stint as prime minister, succeeding Koizumi in 2006 and lasting just one year before stepping down, citing health reasons.
Since getting a second chance in late 2012, Abe has been one of the more effective prime ministers in recent years. Just surviving two years, longer than any of his five immediate predecessors, is an accomplishment.
His economic revitalization plan, dubbed “Abenomics,” revived growth and boosted stock prices until the economy recently lost steam, and he also pushed through difficult changes in national security policy over a divided public.
With a clear victory in Sunday’s election, which he forced by dissolving the Lower House last month, the 60-year-old Abe has reaffirmed his hold on power for up to four more years. Doubts remain about whether he can achieve his broader economic and political goals, which face opposition from both vested interests and the public.
But Abe appears confident and determined.
“The victory gives us strength to follow through on our political will,” he said Monday.
The prospect cheers right-wing nationalists, who see Abe as one of their own. It equally causes consternation among liberals, who fear he is moving the nation away from its post-World War II pacifist path.
The United States and other foreign partners have welcomed a leader with staying power who has gotten things done, though Abe’s nationalist leanings have strained ties with China and South Korea, both victims of Japan’s military aggression before and during World War II.
Love him or hate him, Abe is setting himself apart from Japan’s tradition of revolving-door prime ministers who last a year or so in office. Nakasone held on to power for nearly five years, and Koizumi slightly more. Political fortunes are difficult to predict, but Abe could well be on a similar track.
“It’s possible he will be considered a great prime minister like Koizumi,” said Yu Uchiyama, a Tokyo University professor and author of a book on the Koizumi administration and how it influenced Japanese politics. “The problem will be defense policy or foreign relations, especially with East Asian countries. If he can manage these issues, he can be a great prime minister.”
Abe is benefiting in part from good timing. He led his Liberal Democratic Party back to power in 2012 after voters lost confidence in the upstart Democratic Party of Japan, which ruled for three unsteady years, leaving the opposition divided and in disarray.
Voters are fairly evenly divided on Abe’s policies, but many felt there was no viable alternative to his party. So victory was virtually assured when he dissolved the Lower House. His party alone won 291 of the 475 seats, and its coalition with Komeito took a two-thirds majority.
Abe’s survival suggests that he has inspired a least a measure of confidence among voters, and some like his more assertive stance toward neighbors like China at a time when Japan’s clout in the world is receding.
He has also tried to learn from the mistakes of his first administration, when his heavy focus on a nationalist agenda sent his popularity tumbling.
“He was too ideological and he tried to rush those policies too quickly during his first administration,” said Hidetsugu Yagi, a conservative constitutional expert who is close to the prime minister. “Many people were puzzled over what he was trying to do.”
While Abe does not appear to have abandoned his nationalistic goals, including revising the Constitution, he has not been too outspoken in that way. Instead, he boned up on economics and shrewdly made that his main focus.
Abe is trying to follow in the footsteps of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, who lifted countries out of slumps, said Yagi, a professor at Reitaku University in the outskirts of Tokyo.
He also has become more hard-nosed as a politician, Yagi said, describing his recent dissolution of the Diet as tactical.
“I think he has become very wily, in a positive way,” he said.
Abe also has a role model in his grandfather, former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, who held power for more than three years before resigning after ramming the U.S.-Japan security treaty through the Diet in 1960, over huge public protests.
As a child, he often visited his grandfather’s residence and once mimicked demonstrators’ chanting “No to the security alliance,” he wrote in a book laying out his vision.
Abe has praised Kishi’s move as an achievement that contributed to Japan’s security. Last July, he built on that legacy when his Cabinet approved a reinterpretation of the pacifist Constitution that divided public opinion and could allow the military to play a larger role in the U.S.-Japan alliance.
“I think Abe is feeling a lot more confident and strong,” said Jeff Kingston, a professor at Temple University’s campus in Tokyo. “And when you see the body language of Abe and his key ministers, they are confident. These are not people filled with doubts. They are not worried about public opinion. They think things are going according to plan and going their way.”