Osaka – When health issues forced him to resign as prime minister late last August, it appeared that Shinzo Abe’s reign at the top was over.
But more than eight months later, Abe says his health is better as he moves to re-establish his power base among younger Liberal Democratic Party conservatives who share his long-cherished goal of constitutional revision.
However, with past scandals involving Abe still making headlines and party presidential and general elections set for later this year, he could find any attempt to expand his influence within the party limited to close allies and rejected by an LDP rank-and-file more focused on public concerns over the coronavirus pandemic than on ideological issues.
Last month, former Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, an Abe ally noted for her right-wing views, announced that an LDP group of conservative politicians she heads had named Abe as their adviser.
”I asked Abe to serve as adviser because I thought this was the most appropriate way to rebuild the LDP’s conservatism,” Inada told reporters on April 8 in announcing the appointment.
Four days later, Abe and Inada teamed up again at the launch of a new Diet members’ league pushing for Japan to build nuclear power plants or replace aging ones. Inada, who hails from Fukui Prefecture, home to 11 commercial reactors — the largest concentration in Japan — was named the league chairman. Abe, in turn, became its adviser. While not all of the league members may share Abe’s philosophy, the move will allow both Inada and Abe to increase their visibility within the party.
“The LDP is a conservative party. I want you all to have the spirit to act if the party leadership is going in a different direction,” Abe told Inada’s conservative group on April 22.
Such actions and statements over the course of a several weeks have fueled speculation as to his motives. Is Abe attempting to lay the groundwork for a run at the party presidency, and thus a return to the Prime Minister’s Office, when the presidential race is held in September?
It’s unclear what his ultimate personal goal is in attempting to expand his political base in the party. But doing so would increase his influence, giving him a wealth of options — including a future role either in the political spotlight or behind the scenes, experts say.
Masato Kamikubo, a political scientist at Ritsumeikan University, said Abe’s recent actions are mutually beneficial for himself and ideological friends like Inada.
“This is because younger right-wing politicians like Inada actually have little power within the LDP,” Kamikubo said. “In the LDP, the reformers or the more liberal-minded politicians (compared with Inada) have more power. In the conservative camp, there are very few strong politicians. So they need Abe and he needs them.”
The majority of LDP members are more center, center-right or even center-left than Abe and his cohorts, according to Kamikubo, making them the party’s silent majority compared with its right-wingers.
“In recent years, urban voters and center-left voters have been supporting the LDP at elections rather than the opposition parties,” he said. “From the point of view of LDP conservatives or right-wing politicians, there are very few good leaders within the party. So they approached Abe.”
As Kamikubo sees it, Abe has two choices in the coming months.
The first is to work to develop the inter-party strength of younger, like-minded conservative supporters in the hope they become serious contenders in the LDP presidential election. If that contender is elected, Abe could then find a role as a powerful behind-the-scenes kingmaker.
The second choice is to utilize support from the groups he advises as a base for his own run for the party presidency, especially if a strong, younger conservative leader fails to emerge by then.
For the moment, Abe has blunted talk that he has his again set his sights on the prime minister’s seat, throwing his support behind Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s re-election.
“Mr. Suga should of course continue as prime minister,” Abe said during a TV program last week.
But pouring cold water on speculation of Abe’s return to the spotlight has been the latest revelation in a long-running cronyism scandal involving the former prime minister.
On Thursday, the government admitted to the existence of documents detailing how records related to a private school run by Moritomo Gakuen were doctored when the school purchased state land at a heavy discount during Abe’s time in office.
The documents, scheduled to be released publicly in court in June, are likely to be used against Abe by his opponents.
“Abe has a lot of political enemies. Even some in the LDP who are more liberal than he is, and who are angry with the way he handled the scandal, might use it against him to oppose his return to power,” Kamikubo said.
But the former prime minister could also find opposition from an unexpected corner.
“Even Prime Minister Suga might try to use the scandal against Abe if he feels Abe is attempting to somehow constrain him,” Kamikubo said.
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