National / Politics

Abe ties Taro Katsura as longest-serving Japanese prime minister

Kyodo

Shinzo Abe tied Taro Katsura as the nation’s longest-serving prime minister Tuesday, with a total of 2,886 days in office.

Nearly seven years into his current tenure, which began in 2012 and followed a stint from 2006 to 2007, Abe is set to break Katsura’s century-old record on Wednesday at a time when myriad challenges lie ahead, most recently a controversy over a publicly funded cherry blossom-viewing party.

Before his current term as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party ends in September 2021, Abe is expected to step up his quest for major accomplishments to define his legacy.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, Abe’s right-hand man, said the administration has focused on economic revitalization and the restructuring of the country’s foreign and defense policies.

“We have been tackling each challenge squarely, and seven years have passed quickly in a way. That is my honest feeling,” Suga said at a news conference Tuesday.

Defense Minister Taro Kono said separately that a stable administration is a plus for diplomacy and security, noting that Abe has forged close ties with U.S. President Donald Trump.

“(Abe) is now a seasoned figure in international gatherings,” Kono, who had until recently served as foreign minister, told reporters.

Taking advantage of a fractured opposition and the public’s apparent preference for stability following tumultuous years under a Democratic Party of Japan-led government, Abe has gradually strengthened his grip on power thanks to a spate of national election wins and the Prime Minister’s Office exerting control over key issues.

The 65-year-old prime minister is often regarded as a hawkish conservative seeking to raise Japan’s profile overseas. Some political experts say he has exhibited more of his pragmatic side during the current tenure.

In 2014, he went ahead with a reinterpretation of the pacifist Constitution to enable the use of collective self-defense — the defense of allies even in the absence of an attack on Japan itself — and expanded the role of the Self-Defense Forces under new security legislation in 2016.

His stated goal of amending the Constitution for the first time ever is still far off, however, with little substantive progress having been made in the Diet.

Abe has so far ridden out a string of money and favoritism scandals engulfing him and his Cabinet, with approval ratings hovering at relatively high levels. During his 2006-2007 stint, he suffered a series of scandals that led to a succession of ministers stepping down.

But he is now in the hot seat as opposition party lawmakers allege that his office partly covered expenses for supporters to attend a dinner party at a luxurious Tokyo hotel on the eve of the government’s annual cherry blossom-viewing event.

Abe returned to power in December 2012 with a pledge to revitalize the economy, a major concern for the public, and is now seeking to enhance social security.

However, the economy is now seen to be on shaky ground despite his Abenomics economic policy mix that entails bold monetary easing by the Bank of Japan intended to help the nation break free from deflation.

The world’s third-largest economy barely grew from July to September, reflecting sluggish consumption, with uncertainty persisting over the fuller impact of the country’s twice-delayed consumption tax hike in October from 8 percent to 10 percent.

In the diplomatic arena, Abe is now a familiar face at international gatherings, and Japanese government officials say he can talk frankly with many foreign leaders.

But Japan-South Korea ties have hit their lowest point in years over compensation for wartime forced labor, a row that has affected trade and security relations, including an intelligence-sharing pact that Seoul is refusing to renew by Saturday’s deadline.

The issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s also remains unresolved. No date has been fixed for a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un despite Abe’s overtures.

Negotiations toward signing a postwar peace treaty with Moscow have apparently hit a snag, hampered by a territorial row over Russian-held islands off Hokkaido.

Katsura served as Japan’s leader intermittently from 1901 through 1913. Notable events of his tenure included the forging of an alliance with Britain and the Russo-Japanese War.

If he stays in power through next summer, Abe will have served the longest uninterrupted period as prime minister on Aug. 24, 2020. The current record holder is former Prime Minister Eisaku Sato, who served for 2,798 days in a row.