It is a foregone conclusion that Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe will win the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s presidential election Wednesday. He is then likely to be named prime minister at an extraordinary Diet session a week later and to launch a new Cabinet.
Abe, with “open conservatism” as the theme of his policy agenda, has expressed determination to make a new start from the “postwar regime.” Specifically, he is advocating constitutional amendments and more assertive diplomacy for Japan. If he tries only to follow up on Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s reform legacy, he will end up as Koizumi’s imitator. As a new leader, he must present a new vision for the nation.
The reforms launched by Koizumi are only half-finished, and Abe’s announced policy agenda for his administration is only a broad outline so far. Among the first challenges the new government will face are reforming the social security system, balancing the budget and mending Japan’s strained diplomatic relations with its Asian neighbors — to offset the negative part of Koizumi’s legacy.
In becoming prime minister, Abe will be breaking several records. Turning 52 Thursday, he will be the youngest Japanese prime minister in the postwar period — younger than Kakuei Tanaka (1972). He will also be the first premier born after the end of World War II.
Abe is set to become prime minister only 13 years after first winning a Lower House seat. By contrast, Yasuhiro Nakasone was a Diet member for 35 years before becoming prime minister; in his 13th year, he was science and technology agency director general. Noboru Takeshita, who won the premiership after 29 years, was chief Cabinet secretary in his 13th year. The posts were the first Cabinet appointments for Nakasone and Takeshita.
Favored by Koizumi, Abe quickly climbed the LDP ladder, serving first as LDP secretary general and then as chief Cabinet secretary. His consistent hardline stance against North Korea regarding the past abduction of Japanese nationals by Pyongyang agents won him strong public support that led to his fast rise.
The most important challenge Abe will face will be which constitutional amendments to push. In a public debate among the LDP’s presidential contenders, Abe expressed the hope of playing a leading role in building consensus on the issue as LDP president within five years.
Constitutional amendments require approval by a two-thirds majority of Diet members. Support by the top opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan, will be essential. It won’t be easy to obtain that support, as re-elected DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa has pledged to wrest majority control of the Upper House from the ruling coalition in an election next year. The first task for the new government will be to enact legislation on a national referendum for amendments.
Abe’s policy agenda includes “assertive diplomacy.” Japan sponsored a U.N. Security Council resolution that unanimously condemned North Korea for a series of ballistic-missile tests conducted in July. In a speech the same month, Abe said Japan had made a major turnaround in diplomacy by taking the initiative in a U.N. action for the first time.
In his policy agenda, he has called for establishing trust-based relations with China and South Korea, after strengthening the Japan-U.S. alliance. Japan is under pressure to reform its stalled diplomacy in Asia, since China and South Korea have suspended summits with Japan due to Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine. Abe, who made a secret visit to Yasukuni last April, has not indicated whether he will visit the shrine as prime minister.
Concerning Japan’s colonial rule and wartime aggression, Abe said he will take the same position as that of former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, who in 1995 issued a statement expressing remorse. He refuses to pass judgment on World War II, saying that’s up to historians.
A national leader should clarify his or her views about historical perceptions when discussing the nation’s future, which is, after all, an extension of the present — just as the present is an extension of the past.
Abe calls for growth-oriented economic policies, saying there can be no fiscal reconstruction without growth. As to whether to raise the general consumption tax rate, he says only that expenditure cutbacks should be made first and that debate on drastic tax reform should be begin in the fall of 2007.
It is clear that a rise in the consumption tax rate will be inevitable to deal with increasing social security costs, even with maximum spending cutbacks. By delaying comments on the issue for fear that a tax hike will disadvantage the LDP in the Upper House polls, Abe is likely to worsen the budget problem.
Abe appears intent on concentrating power in the prime minister’s office, where the advisory council on economic and fiscal affairs is the supreme decision-making body on economic management. He also reportedly plans to establish a White House-style national security council to coordinate Japan’s diplomatic and security policies.
As prime minister, Abe must exercise leadership. He will need mental strength to tackle the challenges. Next, he will need a broad worldview, as he will have to correctly set Japan’s position in the world so that it will benefit from the postwar international system and make contributions to world peace. Finally, he will need insight based on a historical view.
Important questions include how to evaluate changes the world has undergone in the five years since the 9/11 attacks, how to respond to the “clash of civilizations” brought on by U.S. President George W. Bush’s policies, and how to deal with China’s growing influence and other dramatic changes.
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