The prospect that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may stay in power through 2021 — now that his Liberal Democratic Party’s rules have been changed to extend the limits on its president’s terms at the party convention Sunday — underscores Abe’s unrivaled grip on power over the ruling party, with nobody appearing to come forth to challenge his leadership for the foreseeable future. The lack of any significant rivalry to Abe, however, seems also to reflect the dearth of viable next-generation leaders — a problem that could haunt the party in coming years.
After returning to power in 2012, Abe’s Cabinet retains unusually robust popular support for an administration in its fifth year — scoring an approval rating of 61.7 percent in the latest Kyodo News poll — and the 44.6 percent support rate for his LDP dwarfs the 7.3 percent for the largest opposition Democratic Party. He has led the party to four consecutive landslide victories in Lower and Upper House elections. In 2015, he was chosen uncontested for a second three-year term as LDP president. After the party officially changed its rule Sunday to allow its chief to run for a third consecutive term, Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai quickly expressed his support for Abe’s re-election when his current term ends in September 2018.
The dominant reign of Abe’s ruling coalition has highlighted the weakness of the splintered opposition camp in the Diet. Also within the LDP, Abe’s leadership has faced little challenge from his party colleagues since he brought the LDP back to power in 2012 and kept leading the party to big election wins. That the party’s No. 2 leader is already talking about a third term for Abe highlights the lack of rivals. Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, seen as one of the potential successors to Abe, says he will focus on doing his job as a member of the Cabinet, while former LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba, who lost to Abe in a runoff in the 2012 party race, is mum on whether he will run in the 2018 LDP election.
The concentration of power in Abe and his Cabinet meanwhile has effectively silenced any criticism within the party against his leadership and policies. Appearing in the party’s internet program last month, Ishiba warned that the lack of dissent among LDP lawmakers could prove detrimental to the party’s future. LDP lawmakers today rarely speak up, he said, and when they do, they tend to be called traitors or rebels. “I’ve served as Diet member for 30 years, but it’s the first time I’m experiencing such an atmosphere” within the LDP, he said, expressing concern whether an organization whose members don’t speak their minds will be sustainable. It’s not clear whether such a sense of crisis is shared by other LDP members.
The LDP does seem to be worried about the prospects of its junior lawmakers. The party’s platform for 2017, adopted at Sunday’s convention, calls it a “major challenge” to foster the party’s junior members — now in their first or second Diet term in either the lower or upper chamber — “into powerful politicians.” The roughly 120 such lawmakers, who were first elected to the Diet after Abe returned to the party’s helm in 2012, now account for about 40 percent of the LDP’s Diet seats. The survival of some of these inexperienced lawmakers in the next Lower House race is said to be in question, especially if the opposition parties manage to re-enact the kind of campaign cooperation they did in the Upper House election last year.
What will be Abe’s key agenda in his remaining — and possibly extended — tenure will be another question. In the 2017 platform, the LDP said it will “take concrete steps toward initiating a draft amendment to the Constitution.” In his speech to the convention, Abe called it the LDP’s “historic mission” to “lead concrete discussions for initiating” a constitutional amendment. The reference to initiating a draft amendment was reportedly inserted upon Abe’s orders. That Abe made such a reference right after the party rules were changed to pave the way for his possible third term appears to highlight his resolve to get the Constitution amended while he is in office.
Abe has steadily laid the groundwork for what is believed to his long-cherished wish. He enacted a law setting the procedures for a public referendum on a constitutional amendment proposed by the Diet during his earlier short-lived stint as prime minister. His election wins since recapturing power in 2012 have earned his ruling coalition plus some pro-amendment forces a two-thirds majority in both Diet chambers, a requisite for initiating a national referendum on constitutional revisions.
Neither Abe nor the LDP, however, has made it clear what part of the Constitution needs to changed, how and why. They should make that clear if they indeed want to take the “concrete steps” of proposing an amendment for the people’s judgment. Some proponents of amending the Constitution, including Abe himself, have often cited the fact that it was drafted and introduced while Japan was under the Allied Occupation following its World War II defeat. But that’s hardly a pressing reason to change the Constitution, which has set the nation’s course for the last seven decades.
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