Is Abe really keen to seek a third term?
On the evening of January 19, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe breezed into Shimbashi Matsuyama, a traditional, exclusive restaurant with a quiet air—despite its location at the heart of bustling Tokyo. Upon entering the premises, Abe was met by an intimate group of politicians, business and mass media leaders. The politicians included Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Hironari Seko and Yasutoshi Nishimura, a special adviser to the Liberal Democratic Party president (Abe).
During the gathering, Abe was the only one to raise conversational topics; the other attendees merely nodded or provided back-channel feedback. The topics varied widely, from the opening of the Diet—slated for the following day—to Abe's meeting in December with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But the most attention-grabbing dinner-table chat revolved around Abe's hopes for 2017.
"I want to proceed calmly on the domestic front, but aggressively on the international stage," Abe reportedly said. Some participants took the word "calmly" to mean the House of Representatives will not be dissolved in 2017, a topic of great interest in the political nerve center of Nagatacho, Tokyo, where the Diet is located.
But does Abe's desire for calm apply solely to 2017? This is the question being asked in some quarters of the ruling LDP. "We probably shouldn't rule out the possibility of Abe opting not to run in the next LDP presidential election," an LDP insider opined.
LDP likely facing losing battle in next lower house election
The LDP has decided to change its internal rules to extend the presidential term limit from "two three-year terms" to "three three-year terms" at its convention scheduled for March 5.
The move will be made in line with Abe's allegedly strong wish to continue as premier for a third term. Observers have cited two reasons for this desire to stay in power: Abe wants to be the prime minister when Tokyo hosts the Olympics and Paralympic Games in 2020, an event he worked hard to bring to fruition. He also wants to realize his long-standing goal of making constitutional revisions. Abe needs four more years to attain these two goals, the observers said.
However, to date, nobody has definitively confirmed Abe's wishes. Close examination of his remarks reveal that he was rather cautious in his choice of words. During a January 10 interview with Kyodo News, he said: "I'll consider the LDP presidential election, to be held in the autumn of 2018, while producing solid results one after another. By continuing, various policies can be initiated and produce results. If voters in regions across the country do not want the Abe administration to continue, I wouldn't think about [seeking re-election.] What you do is more important than the length of your term."
Surely, Abe was not saying he would resign at the end of the term, but rather hinting that he would not run for a third term without support from voters.
How would he gauge this "support from voters"? The results of the next lower house election may provide some clues, but the LDP is likely to face an uphill battle, particularly when factoring in the presence of many young lawmakers who have yet to build a strong support base of their own.
"No matter how hard the LDP works, the next lower house election is a losing battle," said one political pundit. "There are no factors that can increase the number of LDP seats. It'll be a defensive battle."
The LDP's current strength in the lower house is 291 in the 475 member-chamber. From the next election, four seats will be reduced under the proportional representation system and six from single-seat constituencies, while nearly 100 constituencies will be redrawn. In particular, bickering and fierce election battles are expected among LDP members in six prefectures where the seats will be reduced.
Limited merits in serving three terms
Furthermore, a question has emerged regarding who should take charge of the LDP's election strategy. The presence of LDP Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai may prove to be Abe's biggest headache.
Nikai was the first LDP heavyweight to announce support for Abe's reelection in the 2015 LDP presidential election, and managed to build a consensus for extending the term for LDP presidents. To Abe, Nikai is indispensable for his premiership.
On the other hand, Nikai is known for adopting an aggressive approach to increase the number of his faction members, stoking criticism and dissatisfaction within the party. Nikai has invited independent and non-LDP Diet members to his faction, eventually prodding them join the LDP. In an unprecedented move, he allowed independent lawmakers to attend an LDP Policy Research Council meeting. This provoked the ire of young members of the LDP, including Shinjiro Koizumi, who presented a letter of protest to Nikai in what was regarded as the first revolt against him by younger members of the LDP ranks.
Nikai has told his close aides that he will helm the LDP's election strategy, but it remains to be seen whether Abe is truly keen to designate Nikai as election strategy chief.
The question of the Emperor's abdication will inevitably influence Abe's decision to dissolve the lower house for a general election. As it is possible for the Emperor to abdicate in 2018, if Abe does not dissolve the lower chamber sometime this year, he will likely have to wait until the end of lawmakers' current term in December 2018.
Observers say there are limited merits attached to Abe staying on beyond next year. If he fails to secure more seats for the LDP in the next lower house election, his dream of revising the Constitution will be difficult—if not impossible—to realize. If he stays on, his government would have to raise the consumption tax to 10 percent in October 2019, after having postponed the move twice. His public pledge to create a primary surplus in the state budget in fiscal 2020 also looks difficult to fulfill in light of the nation's current financial health.
Furthermore, Donald Trump's inauguration as U.S. president is likely to jolt the diplomatic strategy Abe has built up—a strategy focused not only on bilateral relations, but on global perspectives, too. With such a thorny road ahead, does Abe really want to aim for a third term?
One thing seems clear: Abe's psyche has been shaken by the Emperor's stated desire to abdicate, and the emergence of Trump as U.S. president.
This is a translation of an article from the February 2017 issue of Sentaku. The original article can be found here.