Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has entered the sixth year of his administration since his return to the helm of government at the end of 2012. A major focus of attention of Japanese politics in 2018 will be on whether Abe will be re-elected for a third term as president of the Liberal Democratic Party this fall. If he is — as it now appears likely — he can remain in office through 2021, making him the longest-serving prime minister in the nation’s parliamentary history. The next question is what agenda he will pursue once his grip on power is extended.
Abe’s gamble to dissolve the Lower House for a snap general election in October paid off. Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, whose nascent party scored an upset win against the LDP in the metropolitan assembly election in July, staged a challenge against the ruling alliance in the general election by launching a new national party. However, that attempt failed miserably, leaving behind an even more fragmented opposition camp, and the LDP-Komeito ruling coalition maintained its two-thirds majority in the Lower House.
Popular approval ratings of Abe’s Cabinet, which tumbled to a low point in early summer following a spate of scandals that hit the government and LDP lawmakers, have rebounded to levels that are solid enough for an administration now in its sixth year.
A change instituted last year to the LDP’s rules enables the party’s president to seek a third three-year term, instead of the maximum two terms previously. There may emerge contenders to Abe in the party leadership race in September, unlike the previous race in 2015 when he won the second term uncontested. Barring a major setback, however, the chances of Abe winning a third term as LDP chief seem almost certain, given his record of leading the party to big wins in all five Diet elections since 2012.
With its grip on power thus solidified, the Abe administration faces multiple challenges ahead, ranging from leading the economy to a more robust, domestic demand-driven growth to responding to the increasing threat posed by North Korea, which made rapid progress over the past year in its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile development programs.
Abe, meanwhile, is pushing ahead with his key political goal of revising the Constitution, with the LDP planning to submit its draft of an amendment to a Diet commission as early as this year — hoping to get the Diet to initiate an amendment in 2019. But even as his ruling coalition and other pro-amendment forces have the two-thirds majority in both Diet chambers needed to propose a revision for approval in a national referendum, a consensus has yet to emerge among the parties, or even within the LDP, on the specifics of an amendment, including the revision of Article 9.
On the foreign policy front, dealing with the threat of North Korea remains the biggest concern. Abe has steadfastly called for maximizing pressure on the Kim Jong Un regime in Pyongyang to compel it to abandon its nuclear and missile programs, and has thrown Tokyo’s full support behind the U.S. administration of President Donald Trump, which maintains that all options — including a military solution — are on the table for dealing with Pyongyang. No signs have emerged, however, that this strategy is persuading the Kim regime to change its policy. Tensions over North Korea must not be allowed to spiral into a military clash on the Korean Peninsula. Efforts for a diplomatic solution should be tirelessly pursued, and Japan must do what it can to get China and Russia to play greater roles in resolving the North Korea problem.
At home, forces in the opposition camp face the challenge of rebuilding after their dismal general election results. The breakup of the then-No. 1 opposition Democratic Party — when some of its Lower House members ran on the ticket of Koike’s new party, others created the new Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) and yet others ran as independents — left the opposition as splintered as ever. The CDP, which emerged from the election as the No. 2 force in the Lower House after the LDP, holds less than a fifth as many seats as the LDP does in the chamber. A further realignment of the forces will be inevitable if the opposition camp is to present voters with a viable alternative to the ruling coalition.
So far, no clear direction seems to have been set as to where the divided opposition is headed. But there isn’t much time left before the next major election season comes around — in the unified series of local elections in spring 2019 and the Upper House election in the summer of that year.
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