As recently as spring the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was in disarray, weakened by what appeared to be an unstoppable flow of scandals and missteps that jeopardized his chances of being re-elected in a leadership election slated for September.
But as this year’s tumultuous ordinary Diet session effectively drew to a close on Friday, Abe appeared to be in the clear after all and regaining momentum for a historic third term as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Winning the September election would extend his term until September 2021, putting him on course to become Japan’s longest-serving prime minister.
“There was a time when a big question mark hung over Abe’s shot at re-election, but now it looks like he’s a shoo-in for the LDP election after all, unless something really crazy happens,” said Kazuhisa Kawakami, a professor of political science at the International University of Health and Welfare.
This year’s regular Diet session has been fraught with scandals, getting off to a rocky start when numerous statistical errors forced Abe to withdraw a key component from a labor reform bill he characterized as the biggest highlight of the legislative session.
Then came revelations of document falsification by Finance Ministry officials, who deleted dozens of sections from ministry records of a heavily discounted land sale to school operator Moritomo Gakuen — including those mentioning first lady Akie Abe. These reignited public suspicion over alleged government favoritism toward the ultranationalist school operator.
Separately, the emergence of internal prefectural documents renewed outcry over another favoritism scandal involving school operator Kake Gakuen, which is chaired by one of Abe’s closest friends. Those papers suggested one of the prime minister’s executive assistants met Kake officials in 2015, although Abe has insisted that he knew nothing about the school operator’s application for a special deregulation project until as late as January 2017.
Sexual harassment by a top Finance Ministry bureaucrat and a cover-up scandal involving records of the Ground Self Defense Forces’ controversial operations in South Sudan further fueled the ire, sending the Abe Cabinet’s popularity plummeting. Some polls put the figure at one of the lowest levels since Abe’s return to power in December 2012.
And yet, Abe has managed to bounce back. An opinion poll conducted by public broadcaster NHK earlier this month showed the approval rating for the Abe Cabinet had recovered to 44 percent, compared with 38 percent in April.
Pundits attributed the rebound to the simplest reality that many voters see no viable alternative to Abe.
“It all comes down to the fact that there is simply nobody else,” said Norihirko Narita, a professor emeritus of political science at Surugadai University. “No matter how much criticism heats up over the Moritomo and Kake scandals, voters eventually come tothe conclusion that he is better than anyone else after all, unless he makes a fatal error.”
The NHK poll also pointed to what looks like passive support for Abe, with 48 percent of those supportive of his Cabinet citing the lack of an alternative, versus 19 percent who said they are confident in its ability to execute policies.
It’s little wonder, then, that Abe stands a solid chance at securing a third term in the September election.
Ex-Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba, who is expected to declare his candidacy for the race soon, is widely seen as Abe’s biggest rival.
Although media polls show Ishiba frequently ranking alongside Abe as the most desirable candidate for the LDP presidency, his relatively weak intraparty clout suggests he is facing an uphill battle.
Ishiba could gain momentum if he gets the backing of charismatic lawmaker Shinjiro Koizumi, the son of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. But the young scion, despite his massive popularity, is “unlikely to have enough influence to affect a power structure within the LDP, let alone sway the outcome of the race,” Narita said.
The potential candidacy of ex-Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida is also being closely watched, with younger ranks within his Kochi Kai faction reportedly calling on him to challenge Abe this time around rather than wait it out in the hopes that Abe will somehow “peacefully transfer power” to him down the road.
But even if Kishida does run, all he could do is probably “split anti-Abe votes with Ishiba,” Kawakami said, voicing skepticism that his candidacy will prove a game-changer.
All looks rosy for Abe, but this doesn’t mean the leader survived this Diet session completely unscathed.
So much time has been spent wrangling over a litany of scandals for the last several months that discussions over a constitutional amendment — Abe’s longtime ambition — all but ground to a halt, severely disrupting the initially anticipated timeline of calling a national referendum on the matter by the end of this ordinary Diet session.
Ideally, Abe still wants to call such a vote sometime before next summer’s Upper House election — when pro-amendment forces face the risk of losing their current two-thirds supermajority needed to initiate a referendum.
But the election will be preceded by the highly sensitive event of Emperor Akihito’s abdication ceremony in April, around which politicians are likely to try to avoid creating political turmoil at the Diet. This has left Abe hard-pressed to find a window of opportunity to push for the amendment, which is already a divisive topic.
Moreover, the recent enactment of what has been widely criticized as a partisan bill to increase the number of Upper House seats — long sought by the LDP’s Upper House lawmakers — could antagonize the public and make it even harder for the LDP and other pro-revision forces to retain their two-thirds majority in the summer poll, experts say.
Although aware of this risk, “Abe had to accept the bill because it’s something requested by the LDP’s Upper House caucus, whose support he needs to win his own bid for the September leadership election,” Narita said. “So in other words, I think he prioritized winning re-election over pursuing constitutional revision.”