Four years have passed since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wrested power back for his Liberal Democratic Party in the Dec. 16, 2012, election. This period has seen an entirely different political landscape from the revolving-door leadership of the preceding years. Abe’s administration has steadily solidified its grip on power through successive national election wins — to the point where he is unchallenged within the LDP and his ruling coalition with Komeito dominates the Diet. He has used the coalition’s Diet majority to ram through his legislative agenda that sharply divided popular opinion, including the security legislation enacted last year. However, his initial pledge to prioritize reviving the economy and end its deflationary woes has had mixed results. Abe should refocus his policy priorities as he enters his fifth year in office.
In early December, Abe became the fourth-longest serving prime minister in postwar Japan. Combined with the earlier short-lived stint from 2006-2007, his tenure exceeded that of Yasuhiro Nakasone (1982-1987). In May, he looks set to surpass Junichiro Koizumi (2001-2006). If the proposed change to the LDP rules is formalized, he will be able to run for another three-year term as the party’s president in 2018, which would possibly keep him in office through 2021, making him the longest-serving leader in modern Japanese history. Abe’s iron grip on power seems so tight today that such a scenario for the years ahead seems plausible.
That marks a sharp contrast with the years before his return to power, when Japan had six prime ministers in six years (including three Democratic Party of Japan leaders during the party’s 2009-2012 reign) who quit because of election losses, a stalemate over the divided Diet and opposition from within their own party.
Abe returned to the government’s helm by leading the LDP-Komeito alliance to a landslide victory in the 2012 Lower House election. Initially, the LDP’s big win was deemed a reflection of voters’ repudiation of the DPJ for its failures in power rather than big hopes for Abe’s LDP. However, Abe went on to win the Upper House race in 2013, bringing back the LDP-Komeito bloc’s majority in the chamber that he himself lost in 2007. In 2014, he called a snap general election, returning the coalition to a two-thirds majority in the Lower House. In this summer’s election, the LDP gained a single-party majority in the Upper House for the first time since 1989. As Abe himself declared, his administration now appears to stand on the most stable power base in postwar politics.
As Abe led the ruling coalition to landslide wins at the polls and solidified its hold on a Diet majority, Abe tightened his grip on power within the LDP. Last year, he was unchallenged when he was re-elected to a second three-year term as party chief. The LDP’s move after the coalition’s Upper House race win in July to change its president’s tenure — which will pave the way for Abe to run for another term through 2021 — met with little resistance from among the party’s lawmakers.
Abe’s strength has been aided by the weakness of the opposition camp. The opposition parties were not just outnumbered by Abe’s coalition but also divided among themselves, failing to present any viable alternative to the ruling alliance. Since its crushing fall from power in 2012, the DPJ has switched leaders three times, merged with another opposition force and changed its name to the Democratic Party. Still, the top opposition force has yet to achieve a significant turnaround in the number of Diet seats it controls. Its popular support in a recent Kyodo News poll was one-fifth that of the LDP. In the extraordinary Diet session that wrapped up last week, the opposition camp remained powerless as Abe’s ruling bloc essentially had its way in pushing through the administration’s legislative agenda. The DP has yet to charter a course for campaign cooperation with other opposition parties — which is seen as vital to put up a meaningful challenge to the ruling coalition in national elections.
Abe’s Cabinet retains surprisingly strong popular support for an administration at the end of its fourth year. Its popular approval rating in Kyodo News polls, which mostly stayed above 40 percent, jumped to 60 percent last month for the first time in three years. This solid popular support for the administration — combined with his coalition’s dominant majority strength — has enabled Abe to push a series of contentious legislation through the Diet, including the security legislation and the state secrets law, despite public misgivings and opposition to each of his policies. Now Abe has his eyes set on revising the Constitution — after the Upper House race gave his coalition and its prospective allies the two-thirds majority in both Diet chambers needed to initiate an amendment for approval in a national referendum.
Meanwhile, Abe’s pledge to revive the economy as the top priority of his administration remains unfinished business. His Abenomics policies — in particular the Bank of Japan’s “unprecedented” monetary easing through its massive asset purchases — led to a surge in corporate profits aided by the yen’s fall and a rally in share prices on the Tokyo market. But weakness in consumer spending, especially after the April 2014 consumption tax hike, weighs heavily on the economy, whose growth remains uneven and fragile. The employment situation has steadily improved and the labor market is the tightest since the early 1990s, but wage increases have not been strong enough to sustain a recovery in personal consumption. The 2 percent annual inflation goal set by the BOJ to bust deflation continues to be pushed back and is nowhere in sight as consumer prices have kept falling in recent months. Corporate earnings remain at the mercy of currency fluctuations and overseas demands, and Abe’s promised structural reforms of the economy to generate new sources of growth have yet to materialize in significant ways.
Four years on, Abe’s grip on power seems as strong as ever. The question remains how and where he will use his ample political resources.
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