Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe put doubts about his political future to rest on Thursday by winning an overwhelming victory over challenger Shigeru Ishiba for the leadership of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, consolidating control of the party and all but ensuring another three-year term as leader of his country.
Abe is the first Prime Minister to secure a third term after the rules were changed to permit it. Among other things, his victory will keep him in office during the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. More importantly, he is now well-positioned to implement changes to Japan’s constitution allowing the Japanese military to act more assertively in defense of the country.
Revising the pacifist constitution has been a goal of the Liberal Democratic Party since the days of Abe’s grandfather, who served as Prime Minister in the late 1950s. As the Associated Press pointed out on Thursday, changing the constitution would have important cultural ramifications for Japan, where many see the 1947 document as a humiliation imposed by the U.S. occupation after World War 2.
Abe is well aware of the momentous nature of changing the constitution, as well as the stiff opposition he faces from pacifists in Japan, and has proceeded carefully with his agenda. A historic third term as prime minister after a commanding party election victory will present him with the optimum moment to push for the change.
“I will settle the accounts of our postwar foreign policy to make peace and stability more secure for this country. Together with you, I will embark on the task of revising the constitution,” Abe declared on Thursday.
The UK Guardian notes, however, that Abe has scaled back the changes he envisions for the constitution and plans to retain its prohibition against aggressive warfare and the use of force to settle international disputes. The Japanese public seems to be modestly in favor of changing the constitution, although a hefty 40 percent is undecided. Countries with long and unpleasant memories of the World War era, prominently including China and South Korea, will be watching Abe’s constitutional proposals carefully.
His victory is all the more impressive because Abe’s future was cloudy just a few months ago, with a bizarre corruption scandal nipping at his heels, his approval ratings dropping, and the odd government official committing suicide.
In the end, his re-election race was not close, as Nikkei Asian Review reported:
Abe, who turns 64 on Friday, won 553 of the 807 votes cast. His challenger, 61-year-old former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba, managed just 254. The election was decided by parliamentary members and rank-and-file party members, with each controlling half of the total votes.
The prime minister garnered 82% of the parliamentary vote, but among rank-and-file members support was a more modest 55%. “Abe has achieved the basic goal [of scoring a solid win], but the results also showed that there is some discontent,” said Naoto Nonaka, professor of political science at Tokyo’s Gakushuin University.
Nonaka said that Abe’s push for revising the nation’s pacifist constitution may have cost him some support, even as most party members support his economic policies.
Abe underlined the fact that he won 69% of the total vote, saying this margin is more than Liberal Democratic Party prime ministers of previous decades had gained and that he takes the outcome as a “strong mandate for his leadership.”
Approval for Abe’s economic policies, the Japanese business community’s hunger for political stability, and foreign policy issues such as North Korea are seen as important factors in his victory. His cabinet also helpfully maintained steady approval ratings even as Abe’s numbers dipped during the influence-peddling scandal. Throughout his political travails at home, Abe has enjoyed respect as a shrewd diplomat and keen student of international strategy.
The Wall Street Journal attributes Abe’s economic success to a weak currency and strong exports. Profits earned in foreign currency by overseas operations blossomed upon returning to Japan’s shorts. Growth has been steady, with significantly better corporate earnings than U.S. companies throughout the Obama administration. Even those who find the current Japanese economy sluggish and believe it could do better also seem keenly aware it could do a lot worse.
Abe’s third term will include a few significant challenges besides the ongoing North Korea saga and Chinese aggression in the South and East China Seas, including trade disputes with the United States, the possibly insoluble problem of Japan’s demographic collapse and the impending royal succession, which has a few interesting demographic quirks of its own.