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Prioritizing stability, Abe retains key ministers in Cabinet reshuffle while rewarding allies

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reshuffled his Cabinet on Tuesday, retaining linchpins of his administration while at the same time going out of his way to favor party factions that contributed to his election victory last month.

Abe retained what he called the “foundation” of his administration, including Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, Finance Minister Taro Aso, who doubles as deputy prime minister, and Foreign Minister Taro Kono. But the 19-member Cabinet also counts among its ranks 12 lawmakers who have never held any portfolio before — the highest figure for such individuals during Abe’s administration.

Despite his calls to put more women in higher positions in society, Abe named only one woman, Satsuki Katayama, in his new Cabinet, as regional revitalization and female empowerment minister.

The revamp of his Cabinet follows Abe’s successful re-election as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party last month. His victory in the Sept. 20 leadership poll earned him a historic third term as the head of the LDP and also handed him up to three more years as prime minister.

Earlier in the day, Abe also reorganized the lineup of executive members of the LDP.

In the shake-up of the party executive posts, he gravitated heavily toward his longtime allies and friends in an apparent bid to tighten his grip on power as the LDP gears up for the key Upper House election next summer and seeks to compile its own constitutional amendment proposal to formalize the ambiguous status of the Self-Defense Forces — a potentially divisive process.

The active recruitment of new faces — mostly senior lawmakers pushed by each faction leader as next in line for a ministership — indicates the prime minister opted to reward as many pro-Abe factions as possible for their loyal backing of him in last month’s election, if at the possible expense of experience and competence.

The new Cabinet lineup includes Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya, education minister Masahiko Shibayama, and Mitsuhiro Miyakoshi, minister in charge of Abe’s “dynamic engagement of all citizens” policy.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Abe insisted that despite their lack of experience, each rookie minister has spent their political career steadfastly building expertise in their assigned fields, calling the Cabinet a group of professionals.

“This Cabinet is like a team of baseball players, all of whom have roles to play,” he said.

Broken down by faction, the new Cabinet has four ministers who hail from the one led by Aso and three from each of the other most pro-Abe factions — namely those headed by veteran lawmaker Hiroyuki Hosoda, LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai and LDP policy chief Fumio Kishida.

But the factionalism seemingly took a toll on Abe’s “womenomics” policy, with Katayama being the only woman in the latest version of the Abe administration, the lowest female representation in his Cabinet since he returned to power in December 2012.

Abe said he “has to admit” that female politicians are underrepresented in the updated Cabinet, although he denied factionalism had affected his personnel decision. At the same time, he said he had high hopes for high-profile lawmaker Katayama.

“She is incredibly feisty. I know there is only one woman in this Cabinet, but Ms. Katayama has a presence worth that of two or three women. I hope she will use that to promote the goal of female empowerment.”

Also at issue has been the fate of lawmakers aligned with former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba — a longtime rival of Abe who challenged the prime minister in the September election.

In the race, Ishiba amassed more seats than expected, successfully tapping into the frustration felt by some rank-and-file LDP members over Abe’s lingering favoritism scandals and what they see as the limited results of his Abenomics program.

Perhaps aware of Ishiba’s nonnegligible clout and keen to create the impression of party unity, Abe tapped one lawmaker from the Ishiba faction — third-term lawmaker Takashi Yamashita — as the new justice minister, replacing Yoko Kamikawa, one of the two female ministers from the last Cabinet.

Whether Abe would usher in Shinjiro Koizumi, a son of charismatic former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, was also a focus of attention, after the young scion vocally criticized Abe over his cronyism allegations and voted for Ishiba in the election. Koizumi, 37, wasn’t given any post.

In naming the LDP executives, Abe retained Secretary-General Nikai and policy chief Kishida, both of whom vouched for Abe in the leadership election.

The shake-up also saw close Abe ally and former health minister Katsunobu Kato appointed chairman of the decision-making General Council in place of Wataru Takeshita, who backed Ishiba in the race.

Abe also gave a post to Akira Amari, aformer economic revitalization minister who has kept a low profile for nearly three years in the wake of his resignation in January 2016 over a graft scandal. He was tapped to be head of the election strategy committee, apparently to reward him for his role as director-general of the victorious Abe campaign in the lead-up to the party leadership poll.

The appointment of allies such as Kato and Amari appears to underscore Abe’s desire to tighten his grip on power as the party gears up for the challenges ahead.

As the General Council chairman, Kato faces the grueling task of presiding over the party’s key internal discussions over the constitutional amendment in the coming few months.

Under instructions from Abe, the party is tasked with forming a consensus over how to revise the national charter, which remains untouched since its inception more than 70 years ago, and submitting its own amendment proposal to a fall session of the Diet. The extraordinary session is expected to kick off at the end of this month and continue through mid-December.

Whatever proposal the LDP lays out before the Diet has to be approved beforehand by its General Council — the party’s top decision-making body — in principle with a unanimous vote.

But unifying party policy on a topic as divisive as constitutional amendment is no easy task, with some within the party still opposed to Abe’s proposed method of formalizing the status of the SDF.