Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Aug. 26 officially announced his intention to run in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's (LDP) presidential election, setting the stage for campaign debate with former LDP secretary-general Shigeru Ishiba, who had already announced his candidacy in the contest.
It will be the first campaign battle between candidates in the LDP leadership race since Abe returned to the party presidency in the fall of 2012, and is set to provide the party with an opportunity to sum up its achievements over the past six years.
It appears that Prime Minister Abe has maintained an edge over Ishiba, who formerly served as defense minister and minister in charge of regional revitalization. If Abe is re-elected for a third consecutive term, he could be at the helm of the government for a total of 10 years by the time his new term is set to expire in the fall of 2021, including his first stint as prime minister in 2006-2007 -- the longest ever throughout prewar and postwar years.
Because of the weight that his candidacy in the race carries, he is all the more called upon to present his tangible plans for applying the finishing touches to his policy measures over the next three years. At the same time, he is also gravely responsible for how he will hand over the reins of government to the next leader after another three years as premier.
Yet, Abe merely announced his candidacy in the race on Aug. 26, which is regrettable given the gravity of the upcoming election. While he pledged to "take on steering the government in order to pass over a proud Japan (to the next generation)," his statements were nothing but abstract.
The choice of Kagoshima Prefecture in southwestern Japan as the venue for declaring his candidacy in the party presidential race, which was an unusual move, is believed to have been aimed at trumpeting his focus on regional areas. Behind the move apparently lies the prime minister's aspiration to win as many votes from party members, on top of votes from party legislators in the National Diet, to make a sweeping victory in the election for a stable administration to follow. However, the way he staged his announcement has left one to wonder how much it worked to impress the public and deepen their understanding toward his bid for a third term in a row.
Prime Minister Abe has coined a range of fancy slogans almost every year, such as "regional revitalization," "women's empowerment," "dynamic engagement of all citizens" and "work-style reforms." Yet, as he himself has acknowledged, these goals have a way to go before being fully achieved. In reality, what he has done is just distract people's attention one after another instead of carefully verifying the outcome of each policy objective.
One such stalled goal is the so-called "Abenomics" economic policy mix promoted with great fanfare by Abe's administration since shortly after he came back to power in 2012. Under the initiative, the Bank of Japan's (BOJ) quantitative and qualitative monetary easing contributed to the yen's depreciation and rising share prices mainly among export-oriented industries. The policy also resulted in boosting employment and improving business earnings at large, among other economic indices that saw a turnaround.
However, the BOJ has purchased colossal amounts of exchange-traded funds to keep the share prices afloat while maintaining the monetary easing, and has backed up the government's fiscal stimulus measures by way of bulk purchases of state bonds. Critics are showing growing concerns that these tactics have distorted the financial market.
The BOJ's annual 2 percent inflation target, which the central bank initially pledged to achieve in about two years, has yet to be attained, and the ultra-easy monetary policy, which was adopted on the grounds of bailing the country out of prolonged deflation, is now a source of concern for its side-effects rather than positive effects.
Consumer spending has also not picked up as expected, and a feeling of economic recovery has yet to sink in among many members of the public. There is a stronger sense of frustration in local areas as the benefits of Abenomics remain limited in regional economies.
Furthermore, the prime minister has twice postponed the implementation of a consumption tax hike from the current 8 percent to 10 percent, while leaving state budgets to only swell, thereby creating even more state debt for future generations.
The problem is Prime Minister Abe is reluctant to face up to these negative outcomes of his policy measures, including Abenomics. If he is to keep repeating his favorite catchphrase for his government policy measures of being "halfway implemented" without ever modifying them over the next three years, the post-Abe administration and the public would be the ones who would suffer the most in the end.
If Abe's successor is to drastically change economic policy, it may wreak serious havoc on the financial market. What's more unsettling is that some observers are forecasting a possible economic downturn in Japan after the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games.
The strains of the Abe government may inevitably be passed over to the ensuing administration. The question is whether Prime Minister Abe is looking to settle the negative legacy his administration is going to leave behind before his tenure comes to an end. If he is without such a vision and doesn't care what follows, that would pose a serious problem.
With regard to economic policy, Ishiba has suggested attaching weight to fiscal rehabilitation while pursuing an exit strategy from ultra-monetary easing to seek to have the central bank tighten its monetary grip. Debate between Ishiba, an LDP heavyweight, and Abe in the run-up to the party leadership election would mean a lot to the general public as well.
The focal points of contention in the race are not limited to economic policy. They will also include Prime Minister Abe's high-handed approach in steering Diet proceedings, distorted bureaucracy as evident in a favoritism scandal involving school operator Moritomo Gakuen and other scandals, as well as issues including constitutional reform and foreign and security policy. It is only natural for Ishiba to call for public debate with Abe on all of these policy themes.
Nevertheless, Abe has shown less desire to hold such open discussion, and reportedly intends to focus on stump speeches where candidates only address their ideas in a unilateral manner during the campaign period. One cannot help but wonder if Abe believes debate with his archrival could adversely affect his election battle, despite his grand goal of aiming for his administration to continue for a decade.