In reshuffling his Cabinet on Wednesday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe aimed to achieve two contradictory goals: creating both a stable team with experienced managers and a fresh image with new ones.
Abe suffered from a string of scandals that erupted around individuals he picked as ministers the last time he reshuffled his Cabinet, a year ago. This time he retained nine individuals and appointed ten. Nine of them are serving for the first time.
Of the nine Cabinet old hands, four have served since Abe launched his first Cabinet, in December 2012. These include Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and Finance Minister Taro Aso.
It is rare in Japanese politics for ministers to serve such long terms, as Cabinet posts are traditionally rotated among Liberal Democratic Party members. This aims to ease the frustration of rank-and-file lawmakers re-elected multiple times and awaiting their time in the sun.
Abe faces an Upper House election next July and needs a Cabinet team with proven skills for Diet debates — and a Teflon coating to avoid scandals.
Two appointees were forced out shortly after the last reshuffle over shady financial affairs. Several others were hit by similar scandals, including trade minister Yoichi Miyazawa, whose staffer confessed to spending political funds at a whips-and-leather sex bar in Hiroshima.
Abe said ahead of the reshuffle he would not risk novelty. “The top priority is missions and achievements,” he told a news conference on Tuesday.
In reshuffling a Cabinet, an LDP prime minister usually reshuffles his party executives, too.
But on Wednesday, Abe reappointed all five of the LDP’s top executives, apparently putting the top priority on preparing for the upcoming Upper House election.
At the same time, Abe needs some fresh faces in his Cabinet to ease frustration among the party’s rank-and-file members.
Under the seniority order of the past, any LDP Diet member was automatically — regardless of their ability or expertise — appointed to a Cabinet post if they were elected in at least five Lower House elections, or three or more times to the Upper House.
But Abe, who enjoys relatively high opinion polls, has ignored this unwritten rule.
As a result, before Wednesday’s Cabinet reshuffle, the LDP had 71 lawmakers who met seniority conditions but had never served in the Cabinet.
The daily Sankei Shimbun reported that Hiroyuki Hosoda, who heads the LDP’s largest intraparty faction, met Abe on Sept. 24 and asked him to consider eight individuals from his faction, including Hiroshi Hase, a wrestler-turned-politician elected to the Lower House from Ishikawa Prefecture.
Abe reportedly made no promises. But on Wednesday, he appointed four new members from Hosoda’s faction as Cabinet ministers, including Hase as education minister.
Through the reshuffle, Abe to some extent may have eased frustration among the LDP rank-and-file. Still, it is unclear how voters will rate his team, with its many old faces.
Rumors circulated ahead of the reshuffle that 34-year-old Shinjiro Koizumi, son of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and one of the nation’s most popular politicians, would be tapped as a minister to boost the administration’s appeal.
But Koizumi has publicly declared that he is too young for a position in executive government, thereby apparently ruling out a Cabinet role for now.
None of the new ministers are as popular or well-known as Koizumi, and whether the new Cabinet lineup can garner popularity among voters ahead of the Upper House election remains unclear.
“Abe is now in a ‘safety-driving mode’ to prepare for the Upper House election,” said Koji Nakakita, professor of political science at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo.
Nakakita pointed out that the new Cabinet has at least one member from most major intraparty factions of the LDP.
Abe also included Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and Shigeru Ishiba, minister in charge of regional economy revitalization — the two foes most likely to challenge Abe.
“Abe has paid much attention to achieving a balance” among key players and ensuring stability within the party, Nakakita said.
He predicted that the prime minister will now resort to his usual tactics ahead of the Upper House election: putting the economy first.
“Until an election, the economy first. Once it is finished, Abe will then start tackling what really interests him. That’s his pattern,” Nakakita said.
Revision of the postwar Constitution would top Abe’s agenda if his LDP scores a victory in the Upper House election, Nakakita said.
“In that sense, the Upper House election is very important,” he said.
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