Commentary / Japan | SENTAKU MAGAZINE

Limits of Abe's leadership

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had to delay announcing that the plan for the new National Stadium, the main venue of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, would be scrapped. This is because it took him much longer than he had hoped to persuade former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, who heads the Tokyo Olympics Organizing Committee.

The night before he made the fateful announcement on July 17, Abe and his close associates invited Mori to dinner to win his consent for a scenario in which he would visit the prime minister’s office the following day and agree to Abe’s idea of adopting an entirely new design because of the high costs associated with the previously approved scheme.

Of greater political significance than who was responsible for the stadium fiasco is an in-depth study of the psychological dynamics between Abe and Mori.

Three years ago, when the Democratic Party of Japan was about to fall from power and a general election was imminent, the Liberal Democratic Party held a national convention to elect a new president — who would be certain to head the next government. Even just a month before the convention, Abe was regarded only as a dark horse in the party race.

The faction Abe belonged to was split between Nobutaka Machimura, the nominal head of the group, and Abe. Mori, who was the de facto “owner” of the faction, tried in vain to talk Abe into pulling out of the race.

With Machimura suffering from ill health, which marked the beginning of the end of his political career, the focal point became how close Abe could come to defeating Shigeru Ishiba, then regarded as the front-runner.

Abe’s victory in a run-off vote also marked a defeat for Mori. But Mori retained his influence within the party and played a major role in inviting the Olympics to Tokyo in hopes that the event would enable Abe to remain in power for many years.

At least in Abe’s view, his father, Shintaro, was induced by Mori to get involved in the 1988 Recruit insider trading scandal. After Shintaro died in 1991 without realizing his dream of becoming prime minister, Hiroshi Mitsuzuka succeeded him as head of the faction. After Mitsuzuka was felled by a scandal, Mori took over as faction head and eventually became prime minister in 2000 after Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi suffered a stroke.

Helping the young Abe climb the political ladder was Junichiro Koizumi, who succeeded Mori in 2001 as prime minister and remained in office until 2006. Abe succeeded Koizumi, but his first tenure as prime minister was short-lived. He was succeeded by Yasuo Fukuda in 2007 with the support of Mori, who knew that Fukuda and Abe were not on good terms.

There is a sharp contrast and a fraught relationship between Abe and Mori. Abe has tried many times in vain to leave the faction and create his own. Mori still serves as the faction’s de facto owner.

Even after retiring from the political front lines, Mori has retained power as the faction owner. His conspicuous political performance concerning the new National Stadium displayed his character. He said that from the outset he did not like the original design, which Abe decided to abandon for being too costly. He also said that nobody was to blame for adopting that design.

In politics, being audacious is taken as proof that the person in question is dependable. Mori has the ability to move quickly to a position in which he can gain actual benefit by following the cardinal rule that a bad reputation is better than no reputation.

Compared with Mori on this score, Abe was perhaps overly naive and not bold enough. If Abe had been able to divine what public opinion was hungry for, he not only would have scrapped the original stadium design but also would have fired Mori as head of the Olympic promotion committee — just as Koizumi dashed former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone’s hopes to seek re-election in 2003 and forced him to retire by citing his age.

It will not be easy for Abe to go on the offensive now: Public’s opposition to him is strong over his coalition’s expected eventual move to force his controversial security reform bills through the Diet.

It would be puerile of him to think that his reign in power will continue for many years to come even with his declining approval rate, just because there appears to be nobody to challenge him.

Two days before the security bills were rammed through the Lower House, Ishiba, who lost the 2012 LDP presidential election to Abe, became the first member of the Abe Cabinet to say he was not sure if those bills had gained enough public understanding. This was clearly an indication that Ishiba intends to run in the next LDP presidential election, which is scheduled for next month.

Among those who have expressed support for Ishiba are Yasukazu Hamada, chairman of the Lower House special committee on the security bills, and Shinjiro Koizumi, Junichiro Koizumi’s son and parliamentary secretary of the Cabinet Office. They are joined by Seiko Noda, a former chairwoman of the LDP Executive Council who has been encouraged by Makoto Koga, a former LDP secretary-general, to run against Abe but has not been able to round up enough support for herself.

Noda is reportedly all the more eager to oppose Abe as he appears to be considering having Tomomi Inada, chairwoman of the LDP Policy Research Council, run as a “dummy” candidate against him in the upcoming LDP presidential election and eventually naming her as his successor.

All these events have made it increasingly doubtful that Abe’s re-election will be unopposed. Trouble lies ahead.

Even if he is re-elected, he is likely to have a hard time trying to minimize the subsequent reshuffle of his Cabinet and the LDP top brass aimed at ensuring a long and stable reign.

Yasuhisa Shiozaki, health, labor and welfare minister and a close ally of Abe, joined Ishiba by saying that the security bills have not yet received enough public support.

Meanwhile, the LDP Upper House members from Tottori, Shimane, Tokushima and Kochi prefectures have expressed their opposition at LDP headquarters to a proposed [and now enacted] Upper House electoral reform because those four prefectures would be combined into two constituencies, resulting in their combined eight Upper House seats being reduced to just four.

Shaking up the Cabinet and LDP executive lineup may not necessarily resolve Abe’s problems. As the late Eisaku Sato, a former prime minister and Abe’s great-uncle, once said: Personnel reshuffles serve to strengthen the government when it is on the rise but weaken it when it is on the wane.

There is speculation that Abe will seek to regain his popularity with the public through diplomatic ventures, such as visiting China in September or even going to Pyongyang to resolve the long-standing issue over the abductions of Japanese citizens by North Korea.

Even if Abe has such plans, it is difficult to imagine him being able to overcome his current predicament that has emanated from the sudden exposure of the limits of his leadership of the government and the LDP.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the August issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering the political, social and economic scenes.