In reshuffling his Cabinet and the executive lineup of the Liberal Democratic Party, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appears to have placed priority on the stability of his administration and the factional balance of power within the LDP. What policy agenda Abe and his new team will spend the administration’s rich political resources on in the remaining two years of his supposedly final term as LDP chief remains the question.
In the reshuffle that followed the victory of the LDP-Komeito ruling alliance in the Upper House election in July, 17 of 19 Cabinet ministers were replaced, and 13 of the new members were given their first Cabinet portfolios. But three key figures in the administration were reappointed to their posts. Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga retained the positions they have occupied since Abe took power in late 2012, while Toshihiro Nikai remained LDP secretary-general — the powerful party post he has held since 2016.
Many of the new Cabinet appointees are close to Abe, including aides who earlier served in such capacities as deputy chief Cabinet secretary or assistant to the prime minister. One exception was Shinjiro Koizumi, the young and popular son of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who is considered a future prime ministerial candidate himself. Koizumi, who was tapped as environment minister at the age of 38, has so far maintained a certain distance from Abe. In the LDP presidential race that saw Abe win a third term a year ago, Koizumi voted for Shigeru Ishiba, a former LDP secretary-general and Abe’s sole opponent in the contest.
While neither Ishiba nor any member of his small LDP faction received a Cabinet position in Wednesday’s reshuffle, the appointment of Koizumi to his first ministerial post may be aimed at giving the Abe administration a fresh image. Abe is about to become the longest-serving prime minister in Japan’s history.
Since Abe led the LDP back to power in 2012, his ruling coalition won big in five nationwide Diet elections in a row. His Cabinet’s popular approval ratings remain strong and stable for an administration about to enter its eighth year in office — in sharp contrast to the weak and splintered opposition parties that continue to be dwarfed by the ruling alliance. The latest reshuffle confirms Abe’s solid command of his own party.
At the same time, Abe’s administration faces a host of major policy challenges that will seriously impact the nation’s future, including the rapidly aging and declining population — which the prime minister himself has described as a national crisis — and reform of the social security system. On the diplomatic front, the downward spiral of relations with South Korea — which have plummeted to the worst level since diplomatic ties were normalized in 1965 — seems to have no end in sight.
Popular support for the Abe administration has been sustained by the economy’s boom cycle, which the government claims has coincided with Abe’s time in office since 2012. Now, however, there are warning signs that the economy is losing steam, with setbacks to corporate profits due to a slowdown in overseas growth amid the U.S.-China trade war. After being postponed twice over concerns that it may derail the economy’s recovery, the consumption tax is set to rise to 10 percent in October. While Abe has vowed to mobilize all policy tools to prevent the tax hike from disrupting the economy, not much in the way of economic structural reforms have taken place to generate new avenues of growth — something promised for years as the “third arrow” of Abenomics.
Abe, meanwhile, says he remains determined to push his long-standing agenda of amending the Constitution, even though the ruling coalition and its pro-amendment allies in the July election lost the two-thirds majority of the Upper House needed to initiate an amendment for a national referendum. Speaking after Wednesday’s reshuffle, Abe said he is resolved to follow through on that goal, no matter how difficult it may be.
Following the July election, Abe insisted that his coalition’s win showed that voters want discussions over constitutional amendment to move forward. But a post-election survey by Kyodo News indicated that voters want his administration to focus on issues closer to their daily lives, such as the economy, jobs and social security, with few showing interest in amending the Constitution as a high priority issue.
Abe’s third and final term as LDP chief runs through September 2021, although Nikai, upon being reappointed as LDP secretary-general, indicated he was ready to support Abe running for a fourth term by once again changing the party’s rule. What policy agenda his administration chooses to tackle as a priority going forward will test the prime minister and his new team.