Prime Minister Shinzo Abe became Japan’s longest-serving prime minister on Wednesday, having served 2,887 days and surpassing Taro Katsura, who held office during the Meiji and Taisho eras.
Abe first became prime minister in 2006, but his administration lasted only a year due to scandals involving his Cabinet ministers and his own deteriorating health. In the aftermath, the nation’s top political leadership changed hands six times in six years, leaving the political realm unstable. But Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party managed to regain power in the December 2012 Lower House election and his reign has since continued uninterrupted for almost seven years, bringing stability to Japanese politics and enabling him to pursue bold policies.
Abe should get credit for that, but it is also true the length of a regime does not alone determine the quality of its leader.
Abe’s notable policy achievements include his Abenomics economic package, which boosted market sentiment and stock prices. He also managed to cultivate a close relationship with the mercurial U.S. President Donald Trump and helped strengthen ties between the two nations despite a few tiffs over bilateral trade. Abe has also been active on the diplomatic stage, having visited many countries to bolster relations with leaders around the world.
But the real factors enabling Abe’s long rule appear to lie elsewhere.
His political strength is backed by the victories he has brought to the LDP in the past six national elections. Since 2012, the LDP has won three Lower and three Upper House elections, keeping the fragmented opposition camp weak.
The campaign victories have augmented Abe’s clout within his party. LDP lawmakers who don’t want to lose the party’s official backing in future elections are unlikely to challenge the Abe-led leadership even if they disagree with certain policies. As a result, internal LDP exchanges of opinion seem less lively and uninhibited nowadays.
The prime minister’s power over government ministries appears to have increased since the Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs was established in 2014. The bureau, under the influence of the prime minister, now controls personnel affairs relating to the top bureaucrats.
Another factor behind Abe’s strong foothold is a lack of potential successors. In the past it was usually the case that several candidates to succeed a prime minister would emerge toward the end of his term. Currently names such as LDP policy chief Fumio Kishida, former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba and Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi are floated as possible candidates, but none enjoys strong enough support to take the helm.
He may be a reliable leader within the LDP, but Abe’s report card doesn’t look so impressive on policies that will affect future generations. He postponed the consumption tax hike twice, in October 2015 and in April 2017, citing a possible negative impact on the economy. The government finally managed to increase it last month, but the delay has harmed Japan’s fiscal health, saddled as it is with ballooning debts.
Abe also pledged to have women occupy 30 percent of leadership positions in every business field by 2020 under the slogan a “society where women can shine.” But as of now this target appears far from being achieved by next year. According to a Teikoku Data Bank survey earlier this year that drew responses from 10,091 firms, the percentage of female division managers in those companies rose only to an average of 7.7 percent from 2 percent in 1989.
Two ministers in his recently formed Cabinet have had to step down in connection with suspected violations of the Public Offices Election Law. Now, Abe himself is under criticism for inviting a large number of supporters from his electoral district to an annual cherry blossom-viewing event, organized by the prime minister with taxpayer money. As wining and dining voters from a politician’s home district amounts to a violation of the Public Office Election Law, Abe must sincerely answer questions on this matter that have been raised by the public and opposition lawmakers.
Abe’s term as LDP president ends in September 2021. In his remaining time, it is essential that he make every effort to regain the public’s trust and implement policies that can reduce the burden on future generations.
But it should be noted that responsibility for the nation’s politics also lies with voters. The current political situation is a reflection of public sentiment that the status quo is better than change as it seems few people have positive memories of the previous government led by the Democratic Party of Japan. Investors and corporate leaders are also afraid of a leadership change that might negatively impact financial markets.
Ultimately, it is imperative for all of us to think about what we really want from our national government.