When Shinzo Abe announced on Friday that he would step down for health reasons when a successor was found, he had already surpassed, by four days, his great-uncle Eisaku Sato’s record for the longest uninterrupted service as Japan’s prime minister. In his second term, Abe has held the office for nearly eightyears.
Japanese prime ministers have short tenures, usually between one and two years, sometimes even less. We should not compare the system to Italy, though, where prime ministers also seem to go through an endlessly revolving door. While Italy’s politics are about competing ideologies, Japanese politics are about finding a balance between competing interest groups with similar ideological outlooks. Since 1955, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has continuously supplied the prime minister except for short gaps collectively lasting less than six years.
The LDP is a broad-based group of various factions, who take turns to appoint a prime minister, with otherministerial positions distributed among them. It is testament to a political system with post-feudal elements. LDP politicians are to the right and center on the political spectrum, pro-business and fiercely defensive of their constituents’ economic interests.
Constituencies often return the same family to the parliament for decades, which explains why so many influential LDP grandees are second, third or even fourth generation parliamentarians. Abe is no exception.His great uncle was prime minister in the 1960s and early 1970s, his adoptive grandfather Nobusuke Kishi held the post in the late 1950s, and his father narrowly missed out on it, when he had to step down in the early 1990s suffering from late-stage pancreatic cancer.
In such a system few prime ministers leave a mark, because Japanese politics is about weighing up priorities among rival factions, and there is no time for grand visions. Abe, however, will. When he began his second term in 2012 Japan was only beginning to recover from a devastating earthquake and tsunami the previous year, and leadership was required as rarely before.
Abe understood that action was required after Japan lost two decades to an anemic economy. A transfusion of energy with a rapidly ageing population was a challenge, so he instituted expansionary monetary and fiscal policy, and structural reform. The latter was difficult for a ruling party driven by the particular interests of different economic groupings, but he achieved success of sorts; the Nikkei stock index more than doubled during his premiership and inflation at least moved into positive territory from a decade or so predominantly in the negative.
His foreign policy was right-wing, which is not surprising, given the tradition of his faction, the Seiwa Political-Analysis Council, founded by Takeo Fukuda in 1962. As prime minister, Fukuda maintained friendly relations with the Kuomintang generals in Taiwan and espoused “heart to heart relations” with Southeast Asia, which became the cornerstone of Japanese economic influence in the region. Abe continued that tradition.
Abe’s successor will have big shoes to fill, and how they fill them will depend on the course of the pandemic, the economy and geopolitical realities.
He also wanted to rewrite the postwar peace constitution to allow the Japanese military to engage abroad with allies to defend the country, particularly against North Korea. He missed the opportunity despite a landslide victory in the 2017 election. However, parliament did approve legislation giving Japan’s Defense Agency the full status of a cabinet ranking defense ministry in 2007, during Abe’s first term.
One of Abe’s biggest achievements was to keep Barack Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) alive,assisted by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, when Donald Trump tore up the trade agreement on the day he assumed office.
Abe also tried to revive Sino-Japanese relations, visiting Beijing in 2018, the first time a Japanese prime minister had stepped on Chinese soil in seven years. The efforts were thwarted as China became ever more aggressive in the South China Sea and as US-Chinese relations deteriorated.
Abe’s biggest foreign policy failing was a deterioration in Korean-Japanese relations. South Korea is important to Japan, especially as the North still poses a threat and China becomes ever more assertive.
Abe also managed to cultivate a sound relationship with Trump, based on phone calls and golf.
No one is perfect, but Abe managed to make the best of the hand he was dealt, and he did bring stability to Japan when it was needed most.
His successor will need to keep the economy going amid a pandemic and in what looks to be the largest economic downturn since the Second World War. They will also need to address a deficit, with government debt at 237 percent of GDP in 2019, and the challenges of a rapidly ageing society.
On the foreign policy stage, Abe’s successor needs to come to terms with a rising China, realign the relationship with South Korea and deal with whatever threats come from the North. They will also need to recalibrate the relationship with the US, depending on where American foreign policy priorities lie after the presidential election.
Abe’s successor will have big shoes to fill, and how they fill them will depend on the course of the pandemic, the economy and geopolitical realities. We should not expect too much change though, because the new leader will come from the same LDP. That means they will be more preoccupied with maintaining the internal balance of power than with ideological ambitions.
Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert.