Before Abe Shinzo assumed the office of Japan’s Prime Minister for the second time in December 2012, politics in Japan witnessed an acute spell of political instability with frequent changes in the office of Prime Ministers. The joke in circulation at that time was that Japan has developed the system of having ‘revolving’ prime ministers. Even Japanese lost count of the number of Prime Ministers that the country had since the departure of Koizumi Junichiro and advent of Abe for his second term. Even doubts lingered if Abe could provide a stable government and survive a full second term.
In an academic discussion at a think-tank in New Delhi on Japanese politics after Abe took office in December 2012 where I was invited to present my perspective and assessment of Japanese politics and the prospect of the future of Abe government, I was asked by a senior Army veteran and security analyst: “how much time (months) would you give Abe to remain in office?” Intuitively, I replied at least minimum of two years. I was laughed at for expressing the level of optimism. As it has transpired, the General was not only wrong but my projection has exceeded the period I had in mind.
I had faith in Abe’s understanding of Japanese politics and felt confident that he would work hard to not only ensure stability in the government but would enact measures to bring the economy on track, which is what he is trying to do through his three arrows of Abenomics. Now we reach a situation when his party members are pondering if the party rules can be amended to give Abe 3-year term extension so that he can get enough time to address to the thorny issues facing the nation.
Why is Abe thought to be indispensable in the country’s politics? Under the LDP rule, a Prime Minister can continue in office if he has enough public support and able to manage the administration without much problem. The party’s bylaws restrict a president to two consecutive three-year terms. The party approved a proposal on 19 October to extend the maximum tenure from the current two three-year terms to three consecutive terms for a total of nine years. The party’s General Council will formally revise party’s relevant rules at a convention scheduled for 5 March 2017. Some members of the party are also inclined to endorse if a proposal is floated to eliminate limits on presidential terms. In many countries, political parties do not have fixed term limit for party presidency and Japan is slowly moving in that direction.
The issue of extending the term of the party president was raised after the LDP scored a resounding victory in the Upper House elections in July 2016. The discussion was initiated for the first time by party general secretary Toshihiro Nikai when he was the party’s general council chairman.
Prime Minister Abe’s current term as LDP president expires in September 2018 and if he wins the next intraparty election again, he shall remain in office until September 2021. That would give him the opportunity to preside over Japan as Tokyo hosts the Olympics and Paralympics in 2020. Abe had also a short tenure in office from 2006 to 2007 when he abruptly resigned. If that period is added, his time in office would total 3,500 days in September 2021. This would be 614 more than the tenure of Prime Ministers Taro Katsura in the Meiji-Taisho era, making Abe as Japan’s longest-serving prime minister. He would have also surpassed Eisaku Sato as Japan’s longest-serving prime minister during the post-war period who ruled for seven years and eight months.
Since the Liberal and Democratic Parties merged in 1955 to form the present LDP, many changes have taken place in party matters. In 1955, the term was for two years, with no mention about re-election. In 1960, re-election issue cropped up for the first time but no limit was imposed on the number of terms a president could serve. The length of a term was extended from two to three during Sato’s tenure in office from 1964 to 1972 but the term length was restored back to two years in 1977.
In 1980, a new rule was adopted prohibiting a leader from serving more than two terms consecutively. Since then, only Yasuhiro Nakasone and Junichiro Koizumi reached that term limit. Only Nakasone was given a special one-year term extension after he successfully led his party to victories in the Diet’s Upper and Lower Houses in 1986. When Koizumi took power in 2001, the term of the president was extended from two to three years in 2002. Though Koizumi could have easily got another extension because of the immense popularity he enjoyed, he voluntarily opted against it and stepped down in September 2006, heralding a spell of political instability. During this period, Japan saw many Prime Ministers until Abe restored political stability when he came to power in 2012.
What benefit could a long tenure in office by Abe likely to accrue for Japan? The positives could be at two fronts: internal and external. Internally, Abe could get some extra time to get the country’s economy on track and his revitalisation plan would receive a boost. The right-leaning leader could also aim to fulfil his ambition to amend the pacifist Constitution which is one of his long-term goals. In his economic revitalisation plan, Abe’s task to bail out the nation out of deflation is not fully realised. He has the serious issue of raising the consumption tax from the current 8 to 10 per cent, which has been postponed until October 2019, an unpopular move that could potentially undercut his rock-solid popularity.
Reforms are also needed in the social security system. There also runs the risk of Abe being seen as a dominant leader and such a perception could shape thinking of new strategies by potential aspirants to the party’s presidency. If Abe starts losing intraparty support, demand might arise for his resignation. Therefore Abe could face the onerous task of striking a balance between factions within the LDP. The existing party rule provides provision to recall a president and an ad hoc presidential election could be called. Therefore Abe needs to be pragmatic and show humility in taking other faction leaders on board so that political stability is not compromised. In particular, leaders such as Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and Shigeru Ishiba, former minister in charge of regional vitalisation and also Defence Minister could create problem for Abe if he asserts his authority in every issues. Both are considered likely successors to Abe and had argued against extending Abe’s term but acquiesced when LDP brass placated by promising that the longer term limit would apply to future party chiefs as well.
In the external front, his diplomatic drive on long pending issues such as territorial disputes with Russia, abduction of Japanese national by North Korea etc. could be addressed over long-drawn negotiations. In advancing summit diplomacy, Abe would get more time to nurture Japan’s diplomatic drive and built relationships of trust with leaders of other countries. Since the tenure of Russian President Vladimir Putin continues till 2024, the issue of northern territories that Abe is keen to resolve might see resolution through a series of one-to-one negotiations with Putin. LDP policy chief Toshimitsu Motegi observed that the extension accorded to Abe will pave the way for a stronger leadership and “create a more stable administration that is vital to increasing the international presence of Japan”.
Change in party rules or government law proposing extension of tenure of the leader in office is not confined to Japan alone. In the neighbouring South Korea, President Park Geun-hye has called for constitutional reforms that could allow future presidents to serve multiple times. The present rule does not allow the president for a second term. In China too, President Xi Jinping is eyeing a longer tenure in office; he is already declared the “core” leader by the party at par with Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. The LDP views that change in party rule in Japan giving extension to the president will bring Japan in line with global standards.
For example, while in the US the President can have two four-year terms and in France the President can have two five-year terms, in India the president of the ruling party need not necessarily be the Prime Minister as was the case with Sonia Gandhi as the Congress Party President but Manmohan Singh as the Prime Minister for two five-year terms. In case of states (provinces) in India a leader of a party can remain in office any number of years if party wants, as was the case with Jyoti Basu and Navneen Pattnaik in the states of West Bengal and Odisha, for example. A small section within the LDP is sceptical that according a long tenure to the party president in office could run the risk of turning the system to a dictatorship. In particular, Abe’s intent to revise Article 9 of the Constitution and enact legislation by passing bills through the Diet, allowing the Self-Defense Forces to fight alongside the US for the first time since the end of World War II are cited as risks not worth-taking to extend the tenure.
Recent public opinion polls conducted in August 2016 by Nikkei daily, Kyodo and Jiji Press on the issue showed a majority of people voted against giving extension to a prime minister in office. Those who opposed to an extension of the presidency were wary of Abe’s seemingly invincible political persona. Others however feel that Abe will be in a better position to work on the newly emergent issue of Emperor’s abdication, a wish he has expressed because of old age as he is not able to discharge his national duty properly. At present there is no provision for the Emperor’s abdication and to allow that the Imperial Household Law has to be revised and that is a complicated process. Moreover, there is no consensus on this as of now.
Though all present indications suggest that giving a third term to the LDP President is just a formality, there could still be some procedural hurdles. Abe might be tempted to dissolve the Lower House and call for fresh election to seek legitimacy to his remaining in office and thereby endorsing the amendment of the party rule allowing for the third extension in office. If that happens, the result will test if Abe continues to remain as the unifying force. Moreover, election to the House of Councillors is scheduled to be held in the summer of 2019, which will be the time for his potential third term to take effect. The issue of hiking the consumption tax from 8 to 10 per cent in October 2019 following the upper house race will put Abe to another test if his pursuance of economic measures has proved effective or not. In the race to consolidate his position and remain in office for a third term if Abe stumbles even slightly, clamour within the party and from the opposition as well shall mount for him to step down. Abe shall be walking a tight-rope throughout, it seems, and that would be desirable in a democracy nevertheless.