Tokyo Report

Groundhog Day in Japan

What to expect after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s term extension as leader of Japan’s ruling party.

Groundhog Day in Japan
Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

The process to extend Shinzo Abe’s time at the helm of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Japan’s ruling party, has been fast. A LDP task force submitted the formal proposal in September calling for presidents to be able to serve three three-year terms rather than two. Barely a month later, on October 26, the LDP made it official. Prime Minister Abe can now stand again for the LDP presidential elections in 2018 – and hence is likely stay on as prime minister at least until 2021.

The chances for this are good. Advocates for the extension included the powerful LDP secretary general, Toshihiro Nikai, LDP Vice President (and task force leader) Masahiko Komura, and the Hosoda (Abe’s own) faction. More importantly, neither of the two main contenders for the “post-Abe” leadership have made moves to challenge the extension. Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and faction leader Shigeru Ishiba (who started his own faction with the declared aim to prepare for the post-Abe phase) have acquiesced to the plans.

Over the past four years in power, Shinzo Abe has enjoyed an almost unprecedented concentration of power in the Prime Minister’s Office and continuously high approval ratings. His reform record, though, is mixed at best and only half as good if measured against his own high-flying goals of reviving Japan’s economic spirits. The more important question thus is not whether he will keep the premiership until at least 2021 (which in all likelihood he will), but what he will do with the extra years. What will an extension of Abe’s term mean for Japan’s politics?

First and foremost, it will be the beginning of the end of Abenomics, the prime minister’s policy of monetary easing and (sporadic) structural reform. With his premiership being extended until 2021, any painful economic reform, such as an overhaul of Japan’s bifurcated labor market, will be deferred further (read: put off for good, as political capital is being spent elsewhere; see below). Three elements point to this:

First, over the past four years there have been only half-hearted attempts at structural reform that continuously took a backseat to Abe’s other causes. Witness the initial shelving of the Trans-Pacific Partnership vs. the forceful pushing through of state secrets legislation as well as security legislation; or the discussion of constitutional revision at the expense of reforming the spousal tax break that encourages mainly women to become part of the irregular workforce.

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Second, the same people behind the push for an extension of Abe’s term limit are also the key proponents of constitutional revision (with the exception of Nikai, who is not opposed, but has urged a cautious approach). This will further cement the shift from the economic to the political agenda.

Third, Abe’s immediately backtracked from his campaign promise to fully focus on the economy following the July 10 elections. Merely uttering the word “constitution” was taboo during the campaign, the sole message being “Abenomics, Abenomics, Abenomics.” Right on the day of winning a two-thirds majority in the upper house on his economic platform (and in a campaign without an opposition), Abe backtracked and declared he will push for constitutional revision and wants to see it to completion.

The years to 2018 will see the repeat of this familiar Abeist policy pattern: a minor, but popular reformlet, such as “same work, same pay,” to prop up his approval ratings as a leader who gets things done and takes on vested interests, followed by a much stronger push for a policy close to Abe’s heart. In 2018, the next House of Representatives election – as every election Abe has contended so far – will again be preceded by promises to fully focus on the economy, just to be swiftly followed by another push for conservative policies, for instance a stronger push back into nuclear energy.

In short, Abe’s extended premiership will be all about constitutional reform and advancing conservative policies, but hidden behind a smokescreen of popular economic policies. The question is how long he can repeat this Groundhog Day experience of popular economic reformlet followed by unpopular political reform before people start looking for ways to break the loop.

Markus Winter is editor-in-chief of the not-for-profit Japan politics and economics blog plotted//grundriss. He also is a lecturer at Hosei University.