National / Politics | Outlook 2020

What will Abe do to cement his legacy?

by Sakura Murakami

Staff Writer

If you look at Japan’s 2020 political calendar now, it will look like it is going to be a relatively quiet one.

The one event looming large on the horizon is the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. With the global spectacle taking center stage, it’s not hard to imagine that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the ruling bloc will be focusing all their efforts on hosting the event successfully and avoiding any politically contentious issues during that time.

But with the games set to start in late July, that still leaves six months of the ordinary Diet session, which will start in mid- to late-January and close in June, open to political wrangling.

One possibility on the minds of opposition party members is that Abe will call a snap election during the early part of the year. Since December, the two leading opposition parties have been in talks about joining together to become a larger and more powerful force that could counter the strength of the current Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito coalition that forms the ruling bloc.

“(Abe) may call a snap election early in the new year,” Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan leader Yukio Edano told a news conference in early December, before adding that the opposition parties must join together to “become a stronger force in the Diet … to take down the current Abe administration.”

The biggest opposition party, the CDP, and the second-largest opposition party, the Democratic Party for the People, integrated their parliamentary groups last year. Separate from political parties, parliamentary groups are the main units of the Diet, and question times are allocated according to how large these groups are.

Members of such groups do not need to share the same policy platform, which allowed the two main opposition parties to link their groups despite significant differences on issues such as constitutional revision and nuclear energy.

The two parties will have to resolve their policy differences if they are to fully integrate.

Any snap election called this year would possibly be the last one that Abe oversees as leader of the LDP. Almost eight years into his current stint as prime minister, his term as LDP leader will come to an end in September 2021, bringing his role as leader of the country to a close as well.

That leaves him with just under two years to cement his legacy and make his mark on Japanese political history.

Ever since he returned to his current position in 2012, he has pushed forward his economic policy, known as Abenomics, invested considerable time and effort in maintaining good relations with the United States and survived scandals and contentious bills being passed into law, such as the 2014 security law, to become the longest-serving prime minister in the history of modern Japan.

However, he has yet to achieve his long-held ambition of revising the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution.

“The road to constitutional revision is not an easy one, but by all means I myself will carry out (constitutional revision),” Abe said during his speech at the closing of the extraordinary diet session in early December.

As recently as May, during a forum discussing constitutional revision, he renewed his resolve to see “Japan host the Olympics under a new supreme law.”

However, the LDP failed to push forward the issue of constitutional revision last year. Although the ruling parties had hoped a revision of the referendum law related to constitutional revision could be passed during the extraordinary session in December, the opposition effectively boycotted debates toward the end of 2019, citing a number of reasons such as the need for Abe to address scandals that rocked his administration last year.

With Abe having so little time left on his watch, constitutional revision could possibly be the hot political topic of this year.

But as his term reaches its final stretch, the focus of attention may turn to who will be named to succeed him.

Some lawmakers have floated the idea of changing LDP rules to allow Abe to serve a fourth term as party leader — a tactic that was previously deployed to allow Abe to serve a third term when party rules at the time dictated leaders could only serve two.

At a news conference in early December, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso suggested that a fourth term for Abe could be possible if he didn’t manage to revise the constitution during his current term.

“If (Abe) can achieve (constitutional revision) during his time in office, that would be fine,” he said, but if Abe can’t achieve his dream during the remainder of his term, “it’s only natural to start thinking about what other alternative options we have,” Aso added.

Abe himself has denied that he is angling to stay in power, saying during a public speech in mid-December that he “is not considering (a fourth term) at all.”

With no clear contender for the top post yet, the question of who might take over the leadership is open to speculation.

With the abolishment of multiple-seat districts and the establishment of single-seat districts in their place for seats not covered by the proportional party list system, the influence of LDP factions has declined and power has become more centralized around the party’s leadership, making it hard for factions that are “critical” of the status quo to gain momentum, explained Hiroshi Hirano, a professor of political psychology at Gakushuin University.

“We probably won’t see strong figures within the party competing with one another for leadership … but instead Abe will have a strong say in who would succeed him,” he explained.

With the possibility of a snap election on the horizon, the world’s biggest sports event in the summer and a prime minister with less than two years to cement his place in history, the upcoming political year is looking very much like it could be one in which Abe continues to bask in the spotlight.