The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has started discussing an extension of the time the party leader can stay in his or her position, currently set at two consecutive terms totaling six years. The LDP's Headquarters for Party and Political System Reform Implementation, which is probing the issue, aims to reform this system at a party convention next year.
Considering the length of the party president's term in light of changes in the times is understandable. But the latest talk on revisions has been unified with the question over whether Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the current president of the LDP, can remain in office. This is not an issue on which a conclusion can be drawn in the absence of sufficient debate.
Revision of the LDP's regulations in 1980 banned the head of the party from serving three consecutive terms. The term of the party president is three years, so if Abe were to abide by party rules, he would have to step down in two years.
In spite of this, it appears that the prime minister is looking ahead to the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, as well as changes to Japan's Constitution while he is in office, and stepped-up negotiations with Russia on the Northern Territories issue. Under such circumstances, talk on extending his time in office has surfaced.
In 1986, when then Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone scored an overwhelming victory in elections of the House of Representatives and House of Councillors that were held on the same day, he was honored for his contributions to the party and his term was extended for one year.
The point of focus now will be whether the restriction on being re-elected multiple times will be removed altogether, or whether the limit will be extended to three terms spanning nine years.
It is not uncommon for countries that adopt a presidential system to ban multiple re-elections to avoid an excessive concentration of power. But under a parliamentary Cabinet system, there are normally no restrictions on how many times the prime minister can be re-elected.
There is a certain background to the LDP's discussion on extending the term of the party president. The reason the ban on three consecutive terms was implemented in the first place was to expand opportunities for leaders of intraparty factions to become party leader at a time when such factions were in full swing. The idea was that this would vitalize factions and the party as a whole. Now, however, the might of factions has declined, and half-forcibly replacing the party leader carries less significance.
The instability of successive administrations had been a weak point in Japanese politics. It is not uncommon for the leaders of other major countries to have long terms in office, and so the issue of whether it is appropriate to effectively cut the limit on the terms of administrations will likely be raised for discussion.
Still, we cannot help but have our doubts about a situation built on the premise of a prime minister continuing at a time when he is predominant. If the prime minister is elected for the third time in a row as LDP president and serves another three years, it would mean the administration could continue for another five years from now, bringing the total length of Abe's term to nine years since the formation of his second Cabinet in 2012.
Of course, even if a third term is allowed under party regulations, the leader cannot continue without winning the party leadership race. Yet we cannot rule out the possibility that talk of a post-Abe administration could be sealed up at this point with just two years of Abe's term left. The fact that LDP heavyweight Shigeru Ishiba, former minister in charge of regional revitalization, commented, "It's strange to discuss that at this point in time," is probably a reflection of the prevailing mood.
In a survey by the Mainichi Shimbun, 53 percent of respondents said that it was "unnecessary" to extend the prime minister's term as leader of the ruling party. As this is an issue that affects the future of the administration, the LDP's Headquarters for Party and Political System Reform Implementation should lend an ear to diverse voices within the party and carefully work to gather opinions.