Shinzo Abe: Sliding but surviving

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe looks increasingly like a ‘lame duck’ but, for now at least, still seems likely to lead his party to yet another election victory in 2018.

The recent slide in Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s approval ratings begs a number of questions about its implications both short-term and for next year’s general election.

First, it is worth keeping in mind that the next election is still a long way off if the parliament runs its full term, ie the latest date is 18 December 2018. Much can — and may well — happen between now and then.

Second, although Abe's approval ratings are certainly well down (at 26% or so), it's hard to see an alternative within the LDP right now. So, unless he slides still further (which cannot be entirely ruled out), I don't anticipate a classic LDP palace coup any time soon.

Third, and consistent with this, despite the setback in the recent Tokyo municipal elections, Abe still has a formidable record as an election winner.

This being said, if there is a danger point for him which is visible today, it is when he has to stand for re-election as LDP leader by September 2018. If he looks like a ‘loser’ then we may see a serious challenge.

As for the opposition, I don't underestimate Tokyo governor Yuriko Koiki. But turnin g her Tokyo-centric party, Tomin Fāsuto no Kai, into a credible threat nationally against the LDP's electoral machine is/would be a huge task — bigger, in my view, than that which confronted Emmanuel Macron in France.

Keep in mind too that, even after a law was passed to reduce malapportionment of electoral seats earlier this year, the 'system' still favours the LDP; and it is likely to continue to do so at least until after a redistricting which has been promised in the wake of the 2020 census.

On the other hand, opinion polls which simply look at levels of support are misleading in that a majority of Japanese do not loyally support any political party, such is the level of general disdain for the political classes. This does leave open the door potentially to an insurgent of some sort.

Nevertheless, for now I think the more pertinent question is what Abe's slide implies for his ability to get 'stuff' done in the coming weeks and months.

In one respect the scandals in which he is mired may have done him a bit of good in that he seems to have dropped some of his arrogance (towards his own party members as well as political opponents). The change of tone may help.

But his performance in parliament last month in defence of the veterinary college scandal was very unconvincing; and the upcoming report into the kindergarten affair, expected to emerge very soon now, could further damage him.

The consensus among the commentariat is that Abe's desire to bring in broad constitutional changes has been dealt a serious blow. Only popular with the conservatives, he will certainly now really struggle if he looks to pursue this.

As for the recent cabinet reshuffle, the best which can be said for it is that it looks to be a fairly solid team which is less likely to make gaffes than the previous cabinet (perhaps especially now ex-Defence Minister Tomomi Inada has gone). But it is, to be polite, pretty uninspiring.

From an investor perspective, I guess markets will be pleased to see Yoshihide Suga still at cabinet secretary, hoping that he can regain his early pro-reform zeal. And Hiroshima Seko's retention at Trade will bolster hopes for agreement and ratification of a TPP (minus the US) and of an EU/Japan deal. But Kozo Yamamoto's departure from the cabinet may not be such good news — he was one of the main architects of Abenomics.

Just as interesting from an investor perspective is Katsunobu Kato's appointment as health secretary from which position he, a close ally of Abe, has ministerial oversight of GPIF.

On foreign affairs generally, Taro Kono, the new foreign minister, has very close ties with Washington which could be particularly important with North Korea looming la rger by the day.

Alastair Newton

(AFP Photo/Toshifumi KITAMURA)

Comments (5)
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Thanks for the encouragement, Kat26, and I can promise that there will be more posts from time to time.


Thank you for this answer. I must admit I am a poor student of history, but you have illuminated me and broadened my understanding. I hope you will be putting up posts!!


Thanks for the question, Kat26. Japan remains highly constrained by Article 9 of its constitution - a constitution which was imposed by the US at the end of WW2 and which greatly limits Japan's ability to take military action. In essence, Japan cannot project force even to protect its own national interests unless it is attacked. There have been several 'reinterpretations' by successive governments, including the present one, which have allowed some flexibility; but, to all intents and purposes, N Korea would still have to make the first move before Japan could take action. Part of Abe's desire to amend the constitution is to do away with this arcane provision (which the US today - even pre-Trump - would support); but it is very unlikely that he would win sufficient support in a plebiscite from a population which remains largely pacifist. That is changing slowly: the younger generation is less haunted by WW2 as older ones; and the perceived threat from China and seemingly much more real threat from North Korea are having an effect. But it may be years before we see what I regard as a normalisation of Japan's right to protect its interests (eg, in the event of a fresh war in the Gulf, to send its navy to protect its tankers there).


wow. So I have a question as to Abe and the current situation. What exactly is Japan's position in regard to the North Korea threat? Will they stand up or be placid?



A brilliant and informative article!!