As Prime Minister Shinzo Abe confidently put it in reshuffling the Cabinet this week, his administration, following the ruling coalition’s sweeping victory in the Upper House election, may indeed have the “most stable political foundation in postwar history.” The new Cabinet and party executive lineups seem to underscore Abe’s unrivaled grip on power within his Liberal Democratic Party. The question going forward is how he will use this dominant political power to push his policy objectives.
The July 10 race proved the fourth straight national election victory for Abe and his LDP-Komeito alliance. The LDP regained a single-party majority in the Upper House for the first time in 27 years as independents joined the party after the election, and the ruling bloc along with other forces ready to cooperate with his administration now hold a two-thirds majority in both Diet chambers — enough to initiate an amendment to the Constitution for approval in a national referendum.
In the Cabinet reshuffle on Wednesday, Abe retained key members such as Finance Minister Taro Aso, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida — all holding the same posts since Abe returned to the government’s helm in 2012 — while regional revitalization minister Shigeru Ishiba, viewed as a contender to succeed Abe and who at times has been critical of the prime minister, left the Cabinet after reportedly rejecting offers of a new ministerial post. Of the 19 members of his new Cabinet, 13 belong to a cross-partisan conservative parliamentarian group chaired by Abe himself, likely sharing many of the prime minister’s political views. Toshihiro Nikai, tapped as the new LDP secretary-general, has been the first to openly suggest extending Abe’s second — and supposedly last — term as LDP chief beyond 2018 to let him stay in office longer.
The seeming lack of dissent and dearth of open challenge to Abe within the LDP — except perhaps when a few senior administration and LDP officials questioned his decision in June to once again postpone the planned consumption tax hike to 10 percent — may not be surprising given his string of electoral victories and relatively strong popular approval ratings in the fourth year of his administration — a feat in itself in the wake of the revolving-door political leadership that saw six prime ministers in the six years to 2012. That Ishiba, in leaving the Cabinet, said it’s important to “show that there are diverse opinions within the LDP” seems to illustrate the state of the party.
So Abe appears to have a rock solid grip on power. How is he going to use it? He said he will “carry out the policies promised in the election with speed and get results.” He said the economy will remain his top priority and that he will “accelerate the exit from deflation up to the limit.” He also said revising the Constitution — for which he has actively campaigned — is one of the LDP’s party principles and “it is only natural as president of the party to aim for achieving that during my term in office.”
It will be hard to dispute that Abe and his ruling coalition won a vote of confidence for his administration in the Upper House election, as in previous national elections under his watch. What Abe needs to realize, however, is that the solid power base that he has obtained through elections is based on the will of the electorate — and that he should keep in mind what the voters expect of him in exercising the power. Otherwise, the “most stable political foundation in postwar history” may only prove to be fleeting.
He won the Upper House election by pledging to fulfill his promise of a full-scale economic recovery — a promise still unfulfilled since he himself admitted that his Abenomics is only halfway to achieving its goals. It is clear that voters, in giving him the new mandate, want him to focus on fixing the economy, whose growth remains mixed and fragile more than 3½ years after the launch of his much-touted policies. A Kyodo News poll taken after the election showed that the economy is by far the No. 1 issue that the respondents want the prime minister to address — far above constitutional revision, on which he seems to have staked political capital to an extent never seen among his predecessors.
His pledged structural reforms to generate new sources of economic growth have yet to materialize — at least not to the point of having a visible impact. He has promised steps to shore up consumer spending by easing their welfare concerns. There are a lot of items the prime minister has put on the agenda that need to be carried out. Given that he now claims unrivaled power, inaction on even the toughest reforms will be inexcusable.
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