Crucial to Shinzo Abe’s control over his ruling party has been a string of electoral victories under his leadership and his cabinet’s consistently high poll ratings. Both now look increasingly in doubt
After a dream run as Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe’s current political predicament must come as quite a shock. Plummeting poll ratings and electoral failures for his ruling Liberal Democratic Party have turned him into an emperor with no clothes.
Two major political setbacks for the LDP in July are creating doubt about both the longevity of Abe’s leadership of the government and his position as LDP president.
First was the crushing defeat of the LDP in the Tokyo metropolitan assembly election when its seat numbers fell to a historical low. The second was when a female candidate (backed by the opposition parties in a mayoral election in Sendai City in Miyagi Prefecture) defeated a male candidate supported by Abe’s LDP and its junior coalition partner the Komeito.
The elections followed hard on the heels of two ‘school’ scandals that more than hinted at ‘political favours for friends’ by the Prime Minister. They gave voters the opportunity to act on perceptions of corruption in the administration, and register a protest vote.
Attempts to evade political accountability
With a cursory nod to the principle of political accountability, Diet hearings were held that examined various details of administrative affairs of the government relating to the scandals. However, testimony at these hearings often revealed more about the government’s attempts to evade political accountability rather than to provide accurate accounts of the matters under discussion.
There were conflicting statements from Abe, his ministers and secretaries, and from bureaucrats, and denials of actions and involvement that stretched credulity.
Then came the scandal involving the Ministry of Defence when minister Tomomi Inada felt compelled to resign to take responsibility for a cover-up within her ministry over the suppression of records of the Japanese Self-Defence Force peacekeeping mission in South Sudan. The records reputedly exposed the extent to which the Abe administration had suppressed details of the extent of conflict in areas where the SDF were serving as peacekeepers.
The scandal has also seen the fall from grace of the chief of staff of the Ground Self-Defence Force and possibly the administrative vice-minister of defence—the top civilian bureaucrat in the ministry.
Abe has distanced himself from responsibility for the cover-up with these resignations. For this, he has been accused of making others take responsibility in order to bring a quick end to the issue and thereby limit the damage to his administration.
During his second administration, when push came to shove, Abe has been able to use his power to stifle opposition
Inada is the sixth minister to resign since the beginning of Abe’s current administration in December 2012, and the fourth in his current cabinet.
Developments like these have come to look disturbingly like a repeat of Abe’s first administration in 2006-07. It went down in flames owing principally to ministerial corruption and Abe’s penchant for selecting ‘friends’ and political allies to cabinet posts.
Often these individuals were appointed above their level of competence and integrity and ended up resigning and, in one case, committing suicide.
During his second administration, however, when push came to shove, Abe has been able to use his power to stifle opposition.
To his current critics, this arrogance has led him to believe that he could exert executive power and micro-manage decisions across a range of policy areas, including those that assisted his friends, with impunity. And instead of taking clear responsibility for his decisions and exercise of influence, either directly or indirectly, Abe appears to be determined to evade it.
The result is a lack of public trust. Poll after poll shows that a majority of respondents do not trust the Prime Minister.
Even if Abe survives his current predicament, his standing in the LDP may be irreparably damaged
The public is also rejecting Abe’s perceived power monopoly, the so-called state of ‘Abe as the single strong force’ [Abe ikkyō]. It appears increasingly concerned about his administration’s high-handed policy management as well as its hubris and increasingly authoritarian bent.
As a result, many seem to have drawn a line. The evidence of public corruption, incompetence and evasion of responsibility appears too strong to be overlooked.
The causes of Abe’s current political travails are essentially of his own making.
Even if he survives his current predicament, his standing in the LDP may be irreparably damaged. Thus his power over the party, including dictating policy directions, will inevitably suffer.
Control over the bureaucracy also on shaky ground
One of the keys to Abe’s control over his own ruling party has been successive victories in national elections under his leadership and his cabinet’s continuously high poll ratings. With the latter now routinely falling below 30 per cent, the former look more and more in doubt.
This will undermine Abe’s standing in the party and put in doubt his leadership as LDP president. Certainly rivals are either circling, such as Shigeru Ishiba (a strong Abe critic), or waiting in the wings (Foreign Minister, Fumio Kishida), ready to take over should the opportunity present itself.
The Abe administration’s control over the bureaucracy is also on shakier ground.
The Prime Minister struck a blow for political control over the central government ministries and agencies by establishing a Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs in May 2014. It is officially charged with making appointments to the senior bureaucratic posts of bureau deputy director-general and above.
In practice, a small informal group of officials from the Prime Minister’s Office, led by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, meet in Suga’s office whenever necessary to decide the appointments. This has effectively enabled the PMO to wield unprecedented power over bureaucratic appointments and thus subordinate bureaucratic power and independence to its will.
A June 2016 report in the Yomiuri newspaper revealed just how thoroughly selection processes had been politicised with Suga declaring that the PMO was ‘now in control of personnel appointments’. ‘More strategic appointments are being made…as a whole and this has been established as the norm,’ he was also quoted as saying.
The new system has led to resentment in bureaucratic ranks, with some only too willing to exact their revenge on Abe and Suga.
Suga, who was in the frontline denying complicity by the Abe administration in the school scandals, now faces uncertainty over his own position as Abe’s right-hand man. As Suga has been the absolute lynchpin of Abe’s administration, his loss would deal Abe yet another serious blow.
Featured image: Shinzo Abe addressing the Cherry Blossom Viewing Party, 2017 Photo: 内閣官房内閣広報室 Source: Wikimedia Commons