Will Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's third Cabinet reshuffle on Aug. 3, which took place as his administration stood at a major crossroads, allow him to overcome the crisis he currently faces?
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Cabinet approval ratings, which Abe has relied heavily on thus far, have continued to plummet, and his new personnel appointments reflect his realization that the scenario he had painted for himself, in which he would win his third Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) presidency in fall 2018, is faltering.
Tapping Seiko Noda, who until now had kept her distance from the prime minister, for minister of internal affairs and communications, is no doubt a bid on Abe's part to indicate that things would be different going forward. Abe's latest Cabinet reshuffle took into consideration the criticisms he received for putting his "friends" in Cabinet positions, and appears to have aimed for more party-wide unity.
However, the fact remains that the Abe Cabinet's approval ratings plunged and the public's distrust skyrocketed primarily due to his administration's reckless handling of the Kake Educational Institution scandal, in addition to Abe's heavy-handedness, including the steamrolling of the so-called anti-conspiracy law and other controversial and divisive bills.
At the start of a press conference in which he discussed the Cabinet appointments, Abe mentioned he was feeling "apologetic" and "reflective." He will fail, however, to regain the public's confidence unless he makes a clearly visible turnaround in his own political approach and re-prioritizes policies.
Another striking characteristic of the Cabinet shake-up is previous Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida's appointment to the chairman of the LDP Policy Research Council. Abe had wanted Kishida to remain as foreign minister, but ultimately yielded to Kishida's request.
It is believed the prime minister determined that not complying to Kishida's wishes would put him at greater risk of not being re-elected as LDP president in the fall of next year. Considering Abe had hitherto gotten his way when it came to appointments of Cabinet ministers and top LDP officials, this, too, is an indication that the era in which Abe is the lone powerbroker is no longer.
Amid such circumstances, Abe will first be tested by how he deals with the Diet.
In the latest Cabinet overhaul, Regional Revitalization Minister Kozo Yamamoto, Education Minister Hirokazu Matsuno and Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Koichi Hagiuda -- all of whom were involved in the still unresolved Kake scandal -- were relieved of their posts.
Just days before the prime minister's Cabinet reshuffle, Defense Minister Tomomi Inada resigned to take responsibility for the cover-up of activity logs kept by Japan's Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) while they were on a peacekeeping mission in South Sudan. The truth about the case has yet to be fully revealed, but the LDP is refusing to allow Inada to take part in out-of-session Diet discussions on the issue, despite opposition parties' requests.
Does the LDP's claim that it is unnecessary to summon Inada to out-of-session Diet discussions also apply to previous Regional Revitalization Minister Yamamoto, and the others who were involved in the Kake scandal? If this is indeed the case, the party will be unable to avoid allegations that it is covering up scandals on a party-wide scale. The prime minister himself should take the initiative to call an extraordinary session of the Diet as soon as possible and summon those who were involved, to fulfill his responsibility for shedding light on these two cases, as well as on the scandal surrounding school operator Moritomo Gakuen.
The Kake case demonstrated that it was because the Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs took over control of senior bureaucracy appointments that bureaucrats were unable to voice dissent to the prime minister, creating a situation in which administrative protocol has become warped. Moreover, the efforts being made by the prime minister's office to control information are hardly tolerable. Such a distorted relationship between politicians and bureaucrats must swiftly be reviewed and redressed.
Meanwhile, at the aforementioned press conference, Prime Minister Abe stated that he is not sticking to a schedule he has set for achieving his cherished goal of constitutional revision. This appears to indicate a softening from the plan he revealed this past May, in which he suddenly declared that he intended on making amendments to the Constitution, including a clear definition of the existence of the Self-Defense Forces while retaining the war-renouncing Article 9, by the year 2020, and that the LDP would be submitting a draft revision to the Diet in the fall of this year.
With the decline of Abe's ability to unify the LDP, there's a possibility that some members of the party will voice objections to revising the Constitution. Opinion polls conducted by news organizations show that constitutional revisions have not won support from a majority of members of the public. As a result, it has become increasingly difficult for the prime minister to initiate and lead the debate on constitutional amendment. However, if, for example, Abe is going to admit to the difficulty of pushing the debate on constitutional revision forward, he should explicitly indicate a change in policy, and as he has said, place a priority on the economy.
It's been a while since many deemed that Abe's economic policy mix, dubbed "Abenomics," hit a dead end. Relying on economic growth as a means to restore fiscal health looks to be a constant uphill battle. It has been more than 4 1/2 years since the Abe administration re-launched in December 2012, and the administration is way past the period in which it can be forgiven for comparing itself to the accomplishments and mistakes of the administrations of the Democratic Party of Japan, the predecessor to the Democratic Party, to underscore how much "better" it's doing. It is time the Abe administration humbly reviews and verifies both the upsides and downsides of the economic and fiscal policies that it has implemented thus far.
With issues such as North Korea's missile and nuclear programs, as well as Japan's tense relations with China and South Korea on the table, Japan's diplomatic and national security landscape continues to be challenging. Former Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera has been reappointed to defense minister again, and Taro Kono has been made foreign minister. Since the two ministers are less hawkish than Abe, their collaboration with the prime minister will hopefully lead to good results. Onodera, meanwhile, also has the urgent task of leading the Defense Ministry in regaining its footing in the wake of the GSDF cover-up scandal.
Prime Minister Abe said, "We will listen closely to the voices of the public, and move politics forward with the public." Abe must put those words into action. Whether the current state of affairs can be changed will depend on whether he can keep that promise. Furthermore, whether active debate can be restored in the LDP, like in years past, will be key to whether we can rid ourselves of a lone powerbroker dominating the political arena.