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3 years on, Abe leads prime minister's office to dominate politics

Dec. 26, 2015 marks three years of the current government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. This year, public support for Abe's Cabinet dropped significantly during Diet deliberations on controversial security-related legislation. But after the enactment of the legislation, public support for the Cabinet bounced back as the Abe administration moved again to place top policy priority on the economy.

    Abe won re-election with no contest as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), securing another three-year term through September 2018 as LDP chief. The domination of domestic politics by the prime minister's office is likely to continue at least for a while. The Mainichi Shimbun summed up what has been done in the third year of the government of Prime Minister Abe, who is keen to stay in office for a total of more than five years from December 2012, and explored challenges the government would possibly face in the future.

    "At the beginning of this year, I said 'I will carry out the biggest reforms since the end of the war,' and proceeded to reform the Japan Agricultural Cooperatives and energy sector," Prime Minister Abe said at the last meeting for this year of LDP executives on Dec. 22, looking back on the year 2015. He went on to say, "As for the peace and security legislation in particular, we were able to achieve significant results as we were able to make reforms in line with the existing security situation."

    During his first administration (from September 2006 to September 2007), Abe upgraded the Defense Agency to the Defense Ministry and revised the Fundamental Act of Education, among other changes, under the banner of a "beautiful Japan." But he was forced to resign after leading his party to defeat in the House of Councillors' election due mainly to the high-profile "missing pensions" scandal and a spate of resignations of ministers in his Cabinet. During Abe's second administration, the prime minister and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, reflecting on those bitter experiences, have tactically decided on Cabinet personnel and when to thrash out policies.

    Prime Minister Abe discounted a possible drop in the public support rate for his Cabinet and moved ahead with plans to have the security-related legislation enacted quickly this year, when there were no national elections scheduled. Abe silenced objections within the LDP by tapping Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, who heads the dovish intra-party "Kochi-kai" faction, and Regional Revitalization Minister Shigeru Ishiba, who calls for a wider scope of allowing Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense, for Cabinet posts. As for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade pact, Abe has consistently had economic and fiscal policy minister Akira Amari take charge of negotiations.

    He successfully weakened resistance forces by deciding in February to work out an agricultural cooperative reform plan designed to abolish JA-Zenchu's power to audit and provide guidance to local agricultural cooperatives. After the LDP reached a broad agreement on the reform plan in October, Abe shut out a backlash from lawmakers with vested interests by appointing lower house legislator Shinjiro Koizumi as head of the LDP's Agriculture and Forestry Division and worked out domestic policy measures.

    Public expectations for the revitalization of the economy are key factors supporting the political domination by the prime minister's office. A survey conducted by the Mainichi Shimbun shows public support for the Abe Cabinet reached 70 percent in March 2013 when it became clear that share prices would go up.

    Public support for the Abe Cabinet, which dropped to 32 percent in August this year due to Diet deliberations on the security-related legislation, rose to 43 percent earlier this month, surpassing the 37 percent disapproval rating, when Abe shifted his policy focus back to the economy. A former Cabinet minister said, "The prime minister is maintaining certain support ratings and opposition parties are lacking momentum. The mood in the party is that 'there is no benefit from standing against the prime minister's office.'"

    Nonetheless, there is growing discontent among LDP members as the prime minister's office forced LDP executives to make concessions over the issue of reduced consumption tax rates by speaking in favor of ideas presented by junior coalition partner Komeito during ruling party consultations. Some middle-ranking and younger LDP lawmakers say: "The party gets a chance only to discuss small and technical issues" and; "There is no way to change the figures decided by the prime minister's office."

    Attention will continue to be focused on trends of share prices and economic indicators that could be affected by a government decision on whether to actually raise the consumption tax to 10 percent in April 2017 as scheduled ahead of the upper house election due to be held in the summer of 2016. If the public support rate for the Cabinet starts declining again, discontent could emerge from within the LDP. The central and Okinawa prefectural governments plunged into a legal battle over the planned relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, a thorn stuck in the throat of the central government.

    Japan's relations with China and South Korea have begun to improve since the Cabinet approved Prime Minister Abe's statement marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, but Japan continues to have tense relations with its neighboring countries.

    In a speech he made in Tokyo on Dec. 14, Prime Minister Abe said something to the effect that the 70th anniversary statement had helped Tokyo "settle" the issue of perceptions of wartime history with other countries. But Japan's relations with China and South Korea have just begun to show signs of improvement. There are flash points as China, for example, has boosted activities of its government ships in the East China Sea near the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture and moved ahead unilaterally to develop gas field facilities. Although the leaders of Japan and South Korea agreed at their summit meeting to resolve the issue of so-called comfort women "as early as possible," bilateral director general-level talks on the issue have been postponed until after the turn of the year.

    Furthermore, Japan and Russia gave up their original plan for Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to Japan by the end of this year. Instead, the two countries are considering Abe's visit to Russia first. Talks between Tokyo and Pyongyang on the issue of Japanese nationals abducted to North Korea have been stalled as the North has been dragging its feet in reinvestigating and reporting on the fates of the abductees.

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