As Prime Minister Shinzo Abe himself says, political leaders are judged not by how long they have been in power but by what they have accomplished. When Abe earlier this week surpassed his great-uncle Eisaku Sato (in office from 1964 to 1972) as the prime minister with the longest continuous term in office, his approval ratings were at or near their lowest since he returned to power in December 2012 — and far outweighed by his disapproval ratings — amid widespread criticism of his response to the COVID-19 crisis.
The pandemic appears to have effectively wiped out what might have been the fruits of Abenomics, with the annualized 27.8 percent contraction of the economy in the April-June period pushing down the nation’s gross domestic product (based on the latest quarterly data) to levels before he took office. His second visit to a hospital — supposedly for a scheduled medical checkup — in two weeks has triggered speculation about his health problems (a sensitive issue given that he quit his first short-lived stint as prime minister in 2007 due to a chronic inflammatory disease of the large intestine). Still roughly a year until the end of his third, and supposedly last, term as Liberal Democratic Party president, attention seems to have quickly shifted to the post-Abe leadership race and how he will end his extended run in office.
However, Abe’s poor record of major “legacy” accomplishments worthy of a long-running administration — despite his and the LDP’s rock-solid grip on power that enabled his tenure to continue so long — predates the outbreak of the novel coronavirus.
Abe began his return stint at the government’s helm in 2012 with a focus on the economy, pledging to pull Japan out of long-term deflation. The Bank of Japan’s aggressive monetary stimulus program pushed down the yen against other major currencies, and drove up the earnings of big companies and share prices. However, the 2 percent annual inflation target set by the central bank and the government to bust deflation remains nowhere in sight more than seven years on.
That the economy’s boom cycle that began with the launch of the administration — once billed by government officials as likely the longest in postwar history — had in fact peaked and began going downhill in October 2018 testified to the fragility of the recovery under Abe’s watch. The average rate of growth was far lower than in past extended postwar economic booms, and the anemic growth in people’s wages led to underlying weakness in consumer spending. Improvements in the labor market — for which the prime minister liked to take credit — is now threatened by the COVID-19 recession and the fear of more job losses in coming months.
Abenomics is widely deemed to have been disappointing in terms of structural reforms to generate new avenues of growth. His knack for setting one new policy agenda after another — ranging from regional revitalization to empowering women and beating the demographic woes of a rapidly aging and shrinking population — has not been matched by significant achievements toward resolving those challenges.
Stability at the top is perhaps one of the biggest benefits of Abe’s long-running administration, which ended the revolving-door leadership in which Japan’s prime ministers changed every year from 2007 to 2012. This is believed to have contributed to the nation’s increased presence on the diplomatic stage, with Abe now the second-longest-serving leader of Group of Seven countries after German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The end to the divided Diet enabled Abe’s administration to enact a series of contentious laws, including the 2015 security legislation that, by changing the government’s longstanding interpretation of the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution, paved the way for Japan engaging in collective self-defense with its allies. That and other national security-related measures are credited with bolstering Japan’s security alliance with the United States. To his credit, Abe has managed — at least so far — to keep a tempestuous Donald Trump from wrecking too much havoc on the Japan-U.S. relationship, even if the prime minister did fail to keep the U.S. in the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
However, Abe’s achievements on other diplomatic fronts have been mixed at best. His pursuit of a breakthrough in Japan’s longstanding territorial dispute with Russia over the islands off Hokkaido seized by Soviet troops at the end of World War II — by building personal rapport with Russian President Vladimir Putin through repeated one-on-one talks — has made little headway.
Behind Abe’s unrivaled grip on power all these years has been his track record of leading the LDP to big wins in six national elections — three general elections of the Lower House and three triennial Upper House races — since he returned to the party’s helm in 2012. He rode out a wave of criticism against his administration over scandals or controversial policies by winning election after election, which silenced potential rivals within his own party. He has also been aided by a fragmented and weak opposition camp — which may not change anytime soon even with the upcoming merger of the two largest opposition forces, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and the Democratic Party for the People. How this bodes for either the LDP or the opposition camp once Abe leaves office remains to be seen.
When he retires, is Abe going to be remembered chiefly as the “longest-serving” prime minister in Japan’s history? It may still be premature to ask. But Abe clearing yet another milestone should give voters a chance for a sober assessment of what he has achieved so far and how he has used his political resources.
The Japan Times Editorial Board