OSAKA – Prime Minister Shinzo Abe marked his 2,798th consecutive day in office Sunday, tying him with his great-uncle, Eisaku Sato, as the prime minister with the longest continuous term in office.
But with criticism mounting over his handling of the coronavirus crisis, and questions growing about his health and the post-Abe era, the prime minister faces tough questions about what he might still be able to accomplish before stepping down in September 2021.
Abe, who was prime minister from 2006 to 2007, returned to power in 2012. He now has the same number of consecutive days in the top position as Sato, who served as prime minister between 1964 and 1972.
Last November, Abe became the longest-serving prime minister ever in terms of cumulative days in office, surpassing the record set by Taro Katsura in the early 1900s. When his previous stint is included, Abe now has more than 3,000 days in office.
Tobias Harris, a senior vice president at Teneo Intelligence in Washington and author of “The Iconoclast,” which looks at Abe and his legacy, says Abe has remained in office so long due to a combination of factors.
“Abe was able to set endurance records in part because of luck — particularly the extent of the DPJ’s collapse and a favorable global economic environment for most of his tenure — but also because he learned important lessons about personnel management and message discipline from his short-lived first premiership that served him well when he returned to power,” Harris said.
During his tenure, Abe managed to raise the consumption tax, which reached 10 percent last October. He also rammed through highly contentious bills that created a law for dealing with state secrets and, even more controversially, expanded Japan’s ability to participate in collective self-defense.
Despite fierce criticism, including from members of his own party, Abe survived favoritism scandals involving he and his wife, Akie, at the ultranationalist private school operator Moritomo Gakuen, and another one involving an old friend who runs Kake Gakuen.
But as Abe enters what is expected to be the last year of his term as Liberal Democratic Party president, and thus prime minister, he is no longer as dominant as he was.
Political scandals, including one over public funds for cherry-blossom viewing parties, over the past year have sapped public trust in his leadership. But criticism also has been mounting over the way his government has dealt with the coronavirus. Recent polls by NHK and the daily Mainichi Shimbun show his Cabinet’s support rate at just 34 percent, some of his lowest numbers ever.
A visit to the hospital on Aug. 17 fueled speculation Abe is once again ill — the reason he resigned in 2007 — amid growing talk he might call it quits this year over his waning popularity, questions about his health and increased efforts by rivals in his LDP to raise their profiles with an eye toward succeeding him.
Former LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba, LDP policy research chair Fumio Kishida and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga are increasingly discussed as potential successors. Thus, there is also talk of a Cabinet reshuffle next month and changes in senior LDP leadership as the party increasingly plans for life after Abe.
Against these developments and with only a year left, Abe’s most fundamental political goal, constitutional revision, remains unfulfilled, with public opinion mostly against amendment, or at least revision, while Abe is in charge. Despite his stated desire to change the Constitution by September 2021, dealing with the coronavirus, and the economic fallout, is likely to take priority in Diet discussions over the next year.
With businesses suffering under the pandemic, Japan’s annualized gross domestic product for the April-June quarter stood at ¥485 trillion ($4.6 trillion), compared with ¥504 trillion in the January-March quarter of 2013, after Abe returned to power.
On the foreign policy front, Abe has yet to achieve another long-held goal: an agreement with Russia’s Vladimir Putin to return the four islands off the eastern coast of Hokkaido seized by Russia in the last days of World War II, 75 years ago. A sustained, often personal, diplomatic effort by Abe to get the islands back and formally conclude a peace treaty to end the war remains elusive and unlikely to happen any time soon.
Nor has Abe been able to make any progress on resolving the abduction issue, the kidnapping of Japanese by North Korea whose whereabouts remain unknown. It’s an issue he has been involved with for decades. But only a direct summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un would likely lead to progress, and the prospects of that happening appear slim.