The results of the Sept. 20 presidential election of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) clearly showed that there are party members who are critical of and dissatisfied with the current administration.
The leadership race gave a third consecutive term to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Now he could possibly become the longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history with three additional years to lead the ruling party and the country until fall 2021. This outcome, for sure, carries substantial meaning.
Abe, however, was able to garner only 55 percent of the votes from rank-and-file party members, despite his superior position as an incumbent prime minister. He did manage to overwhelm his opponent and former LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba.
Party member votes are said to reflect public opinion as a whole. The outcome of the LDP race shows that a wide gap exists between the opinion of ordinary people and that of Diet members.
Priding himself for winning almost 70 percent of the total votes, the prime minister suggested that he won because people accepted all of his policies. If he really thinks that way, it is hard not to call him overly naive.
Abe's political attitude and methods seem to have apparently drawn the ire of rank-and-file party members. Ishiba managed to win more votes than expected as his campaign slogan "honest, fair" politics nailed down Abe's fundamental flaws and weaknesses.
In the favoritism scandal involving school operator Moritomo Gakuen, the prime minister insisted that it was "clear" that neither he nor his wife Akie Abe was involved in the sale of the state-owned land plot to the operator at a staggering discount.
Akie was also appointed the "honorary principal" of the elementary school Moritomo planned to build on the plot. The Ministry of Finance then falsified records of the land sale negotiations between its officials and the school operator, removing the name of Akie and others from the documents. The ministry's report never gave a clear answer as to why this fundamental problem occurred. Abe's explanations have simply been unconvincing.
Reporters pointed out that it was inappropriate for Abe to play golf frequently with the head of the Kake Educational Institution, a longtime friend of Abe and the center of another school-related favoritism scandal. The prime minister shot back, "Is it OK to play tennis or shogi instead?" His argument was off the mark, and also childish. His explanations must have left more people dismayed than convinced. At the time, the school operator was seeking government approval for a plan to build a veterinary school in the western Japan prefecture of Ehime.
Now Prime Minister Abe has three more years to govern the nation. But he must first successfully lead the party to a big win in the House of Councillors election next summer in order to solidify the completion of his final term as party president, and public opinion is far chillier than that among LDP members. A recent Mainichi Shimbun poll showed the public approval rating for the Abe Cabinet remained less than 40 percent, and more and more people are opposed to the administration.
LDP insiders will no doubt be worried about the upcoming upper house race because of the results of the rank-and-file party member votes. The situation surrounding the prime minister is changing, and he must realize that the self-righteous approach he has taken so far has lost currency.
Ordinary party members are dissatisfied because economic recovery is not reaching their regional areas. Many people feel the "Abenomics" economic policy mix promoted by the Abe administration is only for major corporations and big cities, and local communities have been cast aside. In the LDP race, those people appeared to have supported Ishiba, who called for more party weight to be placed on the economic recovery of rural areas.
Abe asserted that this latest presidential election is his last. He apparently knows that he cannot simply repeat earlier excuses that his reforms still have a way to go. That thinking is reflected in his intention to find a way out of the massive monetary easing policies led by the Bank of Japan in order to climb out of deflation.
At the same time, the prime minister continued to praise himself by using cherry-picked employment and tax revenue figures. He can no longer turn a blind eye to inconvenient facts if he wants to bring his administration into the next phase of his policies.
An issue requiring a hands-on approach by Abe himself is Japan's increasing depopulation. He needs to come up with comprehensive, long-term countermeasures soon.
Abe faces challenges in foreign diplomacy as well. He will be required to bring concrete results concerning Japan's territorial dispute with Russia and the abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korea. Simply putting on a show of working hard on these issues is no longer good enough.
What is more, it is under these circumstances that the prime minister wants to submit a draft of constitutional revisions to the extraordinary session of the Diet this fall, saying he intends to clarify the existence of the Self-Defense Forces in the supreme law.
Abe has made it his mission to change the Constitution before he leaves office. But is it really an issue requiring immediate attention and that is also sought after by the general public? We do recognize that there is a need for debate on constitutional revision. However, writing the SDF into the Constitution will not shore up the economy or stop depopulation. We do not support his position of rushing to fulfill a personal, ideological desire.
A serious responsibility awaits the prime minister next when he must usher in a new era with the planned abdication of the Emperor. First, however, Abe must regain public trust in the political sphere. This is a challenge that each and every LDP Diet lawmaker who overwhelmingly chose Abe as their leader, even in the absence of substantial policy discussions, must now face.