Toward a New Era of Revolving Door Prime Ministers?

The recent revelation that the Ministry of Finance doctored documents presented for Diet testimony has put the Abe administration in hot water, and few observers believe that he will be able to recover from this latest development in the Moritomo Gakuen scandal. Many argue that the best Prime Minister Abe can hope for is a graceful transition of power at the LDP’s presidential election set to take place this coming September. While this has led some to ask, “who’s next?” there are also important questions regarding the sort of effectiveness post-Abe prime ministers will be able to enjoy.

While there are plenty of criticisms of Prime Minister Abe, the current administration represents over five years of stability in the country’s top office after seeing six prime ministers shuffle through in as many years before Abe’s return in December 2012. In a time marked by North Korean tensions, evolving Chinese and Russian security challenges, preparation for the 2020 Olympics, and a push to revitalize the economy, a renewed succession of weak prime ministers represents a major source of consternation for Japan and partner nations alike. Whether or not Abe weathers this storm and holds on to the premiership, the question still remains: can longevity be expected in Japan’s prime ministerial post after Abe, or are we in store for another round of revolving door office holders?

Certainly, history supports the claim that longevity is rare. Short-tenured prime ministers have typically been the norm, with an average term length of about 2.2 years since the LDP formed in 1955. Only three postwar prime ministers have served longer than four years (the equivalent of a full Lower House term): Eisaku Sato (1964-1972), Yasuhiro Nakasone (1982-1987), Junichiro Koizumi (2001-2006), and Shinzo Abe (2012-present). Balancing out that average on the other end are a host of individuals lasting about a year or less, including the six who served from 2006-2012.

To assess whether longevity is supportable after Abe, one must look at the traditional sources of a prime minister’s power, recent institutional changes to that power, and the strengths that have kept Abe in office since 2012 in spite of missteps and controversial policy decisions.

Prime Minister’s Sources of Power 

The six traditional sources of power for the prime minister include the following:

  1. Power base within the party
  2. Ties with the bureaucracy
  3. Ties with opposition parties
  4. Popularity and public relations
  5. Support from the business community
  6. International reputation (especially with Japan’s sole ally, the United States)

Institutional changes have not eliminated the relevance of any of those sources of power, but they have certainly served to restructure their relative importance. Three institutional changes in particular stand out: First was electoral reform in the mid-nineties. The abolition of multi-seat electoral districts and changes to campaign finance rules weakened factional influence in the LDP. Factions are still relevant because they offer strength through numbers and carry weight in intraparty negotiations for leadership and cabinet postings, but the fact that factional ties are no longer a prerequisite for campaign finances or support in winning multi-seat electoral districts means that fewer LDP members feel beholden to factional associations. As a result, a record number of members have stayed away altogether, with 81 independents in the LDP after the most recent Lower House election.

The second institutional change was the 2014 decision to make the Kantei the approval authority for all director-general and higher level positions in the bureaucracy. Previously, those decisions were kept within the ministry, reinforcing the impetus for organizational loyalty. However, senior ministry officials now have to worry about the veto authority for upward mobility that rests with political, rather than bureaucratic leadership. This incentivizes compliance and lessens the requirement for a prime minister to enter the post with existing ties to the bureaucracy.

Third, the weakening power of the business community is important. While still a factor in a prime minister’s continued success, the political influence that businesses once yielded during Japan’s economic miracle has waned through the two financial crises in 1997 and 2008.

Replicating Abe’s Longevity

So can somebody match Abe’s tenure? Certainly – he or she just has to replicate Abe’s main strengths:

Domestic Popularity: Although Abe’s public approval ratings have nosedived a few times during his tenure, he has been able to maintain consistently high public opinion since 2012. Considering that the danger zone for an administration is generally below 18 percent, Abe’s lowest public approval ratings holding above 30 percent is not terrible by comparison. Abe has wielded his public opinion as political capital in ways to support both his term-length and policy agenda. Any politician vying to be the next Abe or Koizumi needs to hold a top tier position within domestic opinions.

Ability to successfully represent Japan on the world stage: Abe consistently shows poise and leadership, representing Japan well in a variety of capacities, whether talking global security at the G7 or popping up as “Super Mario” at the Rio Olympics in 2016. As a reflection of his internationalism, Abe handily broke the record for foreign countries visited by a Japanese prime minister. In his first four years since 2012, Abe visited over 60 countries (Koizumi held the previous record, having visited 48 countries over his five-plus years in office). International trips generally lead to at least a slight bump in the polls and contributes to the image of stable leadership that plays well with Japanese voters. All this suggests that future longevity for a prime minister will likely require poise and competence on the global stage.

Composure & decisiveness in crisis: Since 2012, Abe has faced numerous North Korean provocations, the April 2016 Kumamoto earthquakes, and myriad other events that could qualify as a “crisis.” Abe handled each well, but that has not been the case in the past. Many prime ministers saw major declines in their administrations’ effectiveness after slow and/or inadequate responses following major crises. One of the starkest examples was when Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori learned of a U.S. submarine colliding with the Ehime Maru, killing 4 Japanese high school students (and five others).His first act following the news was to finish the last ten holes of his golf game. He paid for it in the polls, however and was later forced to exit the office just two months. Crises can offer defining moments for prime ministers and a post-Abe leader will need to be prepared to handle those situations.

Wise picks for critical intragovernmental coordination posts (such as chief cabinet secretary): Abe is not strong at managing the bureaucracy nor did he come into the office with strong ties to any ministries, but he picked the right people to do that for him. One of Abe’s keys to success has been Yoshihide Suga. As chief cabinet secretary (CCS), Suga has served as the lead interagency coordination authority and chief spokesperson for the administration. In that capacity, he has demonstrated an ability to shepherd the policy process and maintain stability even during Abe’s various missteps. Any future prime minister who wishes to have enduring success needs to pick a reliable, sure-handed CCS and supporting cast.

Who could do it?

Though it is no small task, there are a few future prime ministers among the LDP ranks who could replicate all of those aforementioned strengths to direct another stable, long-term premiership. Among them is current Foreign Minister Taro Kono, who has represented Japan exceedingly well on the world stage, is popular with domestic audiences, and has shown poise and confidence following North Korean provocations. A next-generation possibility is Shinjiro Koizumi.He is still unseasoned but is nevertheless a top candidate in the eyes of the public. Along with his popularity, Koizumi brings an element of internationalism, with a graduate degree from Columbia and affiliation with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a prominent Washington, DC think tank. His crisis management skills could benefit from a few more cabinet postings, but Koizumi seems poised to replicate his father’s success from the earlier 2000s when his time comes to make a run for the Kantei.

If candidates like Kono and Koizumi are able to surround themselves with the right supporting cast when their time comes, they could have a shot at preventing the unwanted return of short-lived prime ministers in Japan. Certainly, keeping that revolving door shut will be a consideration for the LDP as it weighs its response to recent developments in the Moritomo scandal.

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