Keep a close eye on new Cabinet

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Wednesday reshuffled executive posts of the Liberal Democratic Party and his Cabinet. He is apparently aiming to establish a party and Cabinet setup that will be conducive to his re-election as LDP top leader — a position that promises prime ministership — in a party presidential election to be held in the autumn of 2015.

To help achieve this goal, the prime minister brought Shigeru Ishiba, former LDP secretary general and his political rival, into his Cabinet. Abe hopes to prolong his stay in power by containing Ishiba’s political maneuvering through this arrangement. Conspicuously he also gave three female politicians who share an ideological affinity with him important positions in the party and in his new Cabinet. Tomomi Inada is now the LDP’s policy chief, Sanae Takaichi is internal affairs and communications minister and Eriko Yamatani is minister in charge of the abduction issue involving North Korea.

While leading his previous Cabinet, Abe pushed through the state secrets law, which could severely limit the people’s right to know, thus jeopardizing the foundation of democracy. He also ditched the weapons exports ban, opening the possibility of Japan’s weapons and military technologies being used in military conflicts overseas, and changed the long-standing government interpretation of Article 9 of the Constitution so that Tokyo can militarily assist another country even if Japan is not under attack, thus undermining the no-war principle.

Abe is also intent on restarting offline nuclear power plants even as the Fukushima nuclear disaster continues. After the consumption tax hike from April 1, Japan’s gross domestic product in the April-June period fell a whopping 6.8 percent on an annualized basis from the previous quarter, pointing to the overall deterioration of Japan’s economy.

It is imperative for people to closely watch whether the new Abe Cabinet takes domestic and foreign policy measures that improve their lives and reduce tensions in Northeast Asia.

Abe appointed Ishiba as regional revitalization minister, relieving him of the position of LDP secretary general. This move is designed to deprive Ishiba of opportunities to build his political assets through wielding the power accorded to the LDP secretary general, including the distribution of public subsidies to the party and control over party personnel affairs. In doing this, Abe hopes to neutralize the political threat posed by Ishiba.

The prime minister’s appointing of veterans to executive posts of the LDP — former justice minister and LDP president Sadakazu Tanigaki as LDP secretary general and former trade and industry minister and Lower House Budget Committee chairman Toshihiro Nikai as head of the LDP’s general council — is also aimed at helping consolidate his power base.

Abe is trying to make revitalization of rural areas suffering from depopulation and economic downturns an important pillar of his economic growth policy, and thus an appealing point of his new Cabinet. But he appears to be using this as a means of propping up his popularity at a time when ordinary citizens are suffering from economic hardship brought about by a 3.3 percent rise in the consumer price index (which excludes perishable foods) in July from a year earlier and a year-on-year negative growth of real income for 13 straight months through July.

Regional revitalization cannot be achieved through short-term policies. Thus Abe’s call for it is likely to tempt government ministries and agencies to make unprincipled budgetary requests for fiscal 2015 ostensibly to strengthen local economies and societies. This will destroy fiscal discipline. In fact, budgetary requests have already topped ¥100 trillion.

Abe appointed five women as Cabinet ministers. But these appointments will be meaningless unless the employment situation and working conditions for ordinary women substantially improve.

Since Abe retained key Cabinet members — Taro Aso as finance minister, Fumio Kishida as foreign minister, Hakubun Shimomura as education minister, Yoshihide Suga as chief Cabinet secretary and Akira Amari as economic and fiscal policy minister — the main thrust of his new Cabinet will not change from his earlier Cabinet. In pushing problematic policies, Abe ignored the rule of law and public opinion.

In future assessments of the performance of Abe’s new Cabinet, we should check whether ordinary citizens feel that their futures are bright, and whether constitutional rights and principles are being upheld.