The ruling Liberal Democratic Party officially decided Wednesday to revise its party rules to extend the maximum tenure of its president to nine years from the current six, granting Prime Minister Shinzo Abe a chance at a third term.
The move represents a significant step toward the prospect of Abe becoming Japan’s longest-serving prime minister ever.
At a party meeting Wednesday, the LDP unanimously adopted a statement saying a current cap on an LDP leader’s tenure will be extended from six years over two terms to nine years over three terms.
The extension will pave the way for a stronger leadership and “create a more stable administration that is vital to increasing the international presence of Japan,” LDP policy chief Toshimitsu Motegi told reporters after the meeting.
The shift is set to be approved at the LDP’s annual convention next March, enabling Abe to declare his candidacy for the party’s next leadership election slated for 2018.
Any resulting victory would ensure that he remains LDP president and therefore prime minister until September 2021 — far beyond the end of his current presidential term that was set to end in September 2018.
Such a scenario would give a strong boost to the right-leaning leader’s ambition to amend the pacifist Constitution, while conferring on him the honor of presiding over Japan as Tokyo hosts the Olympic Games in 2020.
But it also means Abe would have to oversee the October 2019 consumption tax hike from the current 8 percent to 10 percent himself — an unpopular move that could potentially undercut his rock-solid popularity.
But the push to extend leaders’ time in office is not peculiar to Japan.
Earlier this week, South Korea President Park Geun-hye called for constitutional reforms that could enable future presidents to serve multiple terms, while in China speculation is growing that President Xi Jinping also hopes to extend his time in office.
In fact, the LDP has insisted that the extension will bring Japan more in line with global standards, citing the two four-year terms and two five-year terms of U.S. and French presidents, respectively. Only in a handful of developed nations are presidents of major political parties encumbered by a cap on their terms, the LDP added.
But the idea of Abe remaining at the helm longer than initially allowed has nonetheless left critics warning of a slide into dictatorship, given his record of steamrolling contentious state-backed bills through the Diet — including one that allows the Self-Defense Forces to fight alongside the U.S. for the first time since the end of World War II.
Opinion polls conducted from August to October by the influential Nikkei business daily, Kyodo News and Jiji Press all showed that those opposed to an extension of Abe’s LDP presidency — and in turn his time as prime minister — outnumbered those supportive of it.
Kazuhisa Kawakami, a professor of political science at the International University of Health and Welfare who is familiar with voter psychology, said the result reflected the public’s wariness of Abe’s seemingly invincible political persona.
“If Abe has gone this far in his current term, how much further could he possibly go if granted a third term? That’s the kind of fear I think many people have,” he said.
Masaya Kobayashi, a political science professor at the graduate school of Chiba University, took a more critical view of Wednesday’s LDP decision.
He said the possible extension of Abe’s terms fundamentally ran afoul of Japan’s principles as a nation governed by rules.
“Abe was elected on the condition his term will span only six years ,” Kobayashi said. “If the LDP decided such an extension is necessary, that should at least be applied to his successors.”
The about-face, he said, suggested the extension was merely an opportunistic move designed to give Abe more time to tackle constitutional revision as his administration faces pressure to prioritize another issue of huge national implication and even greater urgency: the abdication of the Emperor.
“The Abe administration wouldn’t be able to work on the details of constitutional revision unless it solves the abdication matter first, especially given surging concerns over the Emperor’s age,” Kobayashi said.
News of the Emperor’s wish to abdicate surfaced in July and it was only a few months later that the LDP began to talk about extending Abe’s term — a move that appeared to come out of nowhere.
“So the political agenda obviously came first,” Kobayashi speculated.
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