Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s plan of cementing his power by hand-picking a successor may have been derailed due to stumbles in his response to the novel coronavirus crisis, although he is set to soon become the country’s longest continuously serving head of government.
Abe is slated to rack up the largest number of days continuously serving as prime minister on Monday, surpassing his great-uncle Eisaku Sato, who was in the top government post for 2,798 straight days between Nov. 9, 1964, and July 7, 1972.
But despite the upcoming milestone, Abe, who took office on Dec. 26, 2012, is seeing his clout decline due to negative perceptions of his administration’s handling the novel coronavirus and the ensuing rapid economic downturn, as well as slip-ups reflecting his long tenure.
Abe is apparently hoping to avoid the fate of his great-uncle, who was unable to name his favorite as a successor candidate in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party after losing momentum during his time in power.
“Anyone is fine, as long as it’s not (former LDP Secretary-General Shigeru) Ishiba,” an aide to Abe said regarding the leader’s views on his successor. “Even (Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide) Suga would be fine.”
Fumio Kishida, policy chief of the LDP, is seen as a favorite of Abe as his successor, but the supposed rising star is struggling to gain support both inside the party and among the general public.
Abe’s third-straight three-year term as president of the LDP is scheduled to end in late September next year. The LDP’s internal rules do not allow a fourth straight term, and the prime minister has repeatedly rejected the idea of amending the rules to extend his tenure.
The LDP is already seeing potential successors prepare for the next party leadership election, with Kishida, a continuity candidate for the current administration, and Ishiba, a vocal critic of the Abe regime, viewed as the main candidates.
But the government’s blunders over the epidemic and other issues have thrown a wrench in Abe’s plans to effectively cede power to Kishida, fueling speculation that a third candidate, such as Suga, may gain support. One government source said that Suga has appeared primed to take on the challenge of entering the race to succeed Abe.
Abe’s influence as kingmaker is called into question even within his own intraparty faction, which, with 98 members, is the largest force in the LDP.
Faction members, such as economic revitalization minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, election strategy chief Hakubun Shimomura and Executive Acting Secretary-General Tomomi Inada, are each mulling a bid for the presidency, raising doubts over Abe’s ability to unite his faction.
Whether Abe will name a successor candidate or stay mum on the matter may serve as a barometer on his influence within the faction, as well as within the larger party.
“Successors are not nurtured, but they grow by themselves,” Abe said at a news conference on June 18.
On Kakuei Tanaka and Takeo Fukuda, who were potential successors to Sato, Abe said, “Instead of (Sato) raising them, the two honed their political skills while competing against each other and utilizing the positions given to them (by the then prime minister).”
Abe suggested that he would like to do the same.
But following in the footsteps of his great-uncle may not be the best strategy for Abe, as Sato was ultimately unable to have his preferred candidate, Fukuda, succeed him.
As citizens grew tired of his long tenure, and diplomacy under his administration stalled amid the so-called Nixon shocks, triggered by then U.S. President Richard Nixon’s economic policies, Sato was unable to name Fukuda as his successor and stepped down as prime minister less than two months after achieving the return of Okinawa to Japanese rule from U.S. occupation in mid-May 1972. In July that year, Tanaka was elected LDP leader and then prime minister. Fukuda served as prime minister later in the 1970s.
Abe, who wants to avoid Sato’s fate, is sensitive to criticism and dissatisfaction over his reign from the LDP and the general public.
Even Kishida, Abe’s preferred successor, said in a radio program on July 4 that the Abe administration must humbly accept criticism that its long rule has led to issues.
Attention is now being paid to moves Abe could make to shore up his administration, such as a possible dissolution of the House of Representatives and a subsequent snap general election, and expected shake-ups of his Cabinet and the lineup of LDP executives.
Under the circumstances, one senior LDP official is focusing on Aug. 24, when Abe overtakes Sato as the longest continuously serving prime minister.
“I think the prime minister is thinking of (the day) as an important juncture,” the official said. “What actions he will take from that point is the big question.”