In an unexpected move, secretary general of the ruling LDP, Shigeru Ishiba, has decided not to join Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s new Cabinet, set to be announced the first week of September. Abe is expected to reshuffle both his Cabinet and the LDP leadership, and was set to offer Ishiba the new ministerial post in charge of defense legislation. However, it appears that Ishiba has decided that the LDP presidential election in September 2015 is more important, and that he can effectively campaign for the position while out of both the Cabinet and the LDP leadership. It would also appear that he believes Abe may be vulnerable by the time the presidential election occurs.
Sources that spoke with the Jiji Press said that Ishiba reached his decision because he did not share Abe’s views on national security policy. Were Ishiba to take the Cabinet position, he would be in charge of spearheading legislation in the Diet in order to codify the administration’s new interpretation of collective self-defense. Ishiba reportedly does not agree with Abe’s piecemeal approach to reinterpretation by changing individual laws, but would rather see “a new basic national security law that clarifies roles of the Self-Defense Forces.”
Abe has reportedly not been happy with Ishiba’s performance in his role as secretary general, but would rather make use of his experience as a former defense minister. Ishiba is said to have mismanaged key elections in Fukushima and Okinawa that cost the LDP a key mayoral position in Nago and caused other setbacks. According to the Japan News, Abe stated afterward that “The party secretary general’s inability to manage election preparations makes him unworthy of his post.”
There are conflicting opinions within the LDP as to how prudent Ishiba’s decision may ultimately be. He reportedly has the support of a faction led by Fukushiro Nukaga within the LDP, as well as a few former party leaders. However, Ishiba will have to be careful not to appear to have abandoned the government for purely political reasons. The Japan News also reported a senior LDP official as saying “Probably only a minority within the party would accept Mr. Ishiba’s intention of focusing on the LDP presidential election. His selfishness is hardly tolerable.”
It could be that Ishiba does not want to be the legislative face of Abe’s push on collective self-defense in the Diet, either because he does not actually agree with Abe’s approach or because of the political cost of being so associated with a policy that so far is publicly unpopular. Whether Ishiba can stay out of leadership for an entire year and still garner enough support next September is questionable, but he may be depending on two things: a substantial decline in Abe’s popularity due to his self-defense policy (or a substantial reversal to his economic policy), and the continued support of a large enough faction within the LDP. It will take time before Ishiba’s gamble shows itself to be a wise move or not, but it is interesting to note that he has chosen this moment to break with Abe, who despite slowly declining popularity ratings still appears in command of both his party and the national political discourse.