The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has decided to extend the tenure of its president to three terms totaling nine years, but the question of whether Prime Minister Shinzo Abe can stay in power for another term is likely to hinge on Japan's economic conditions.
The LDP made the decision at its annual convention on March 5. The governing party had previously set the limit on its leader's tenure at two three-year terms.
At the gathering, Prime Minister Abe declared that he would tackle long-term tasks, such as economic stimulus measures and his long-cherished goal of revising the postwar Constitution, with an eye to securing re-election to a third term as LDP president autumn next year. Meanwhile, there have been few moves among other LDP legislators to run against Abe in the party presidential election in September 2018.
"You can't break through barriers just by throwing around criticism of policy measures. We'll produce results," Abe told the convention as he vowed to implement effective measures to boost Japan's economy.
The prime minister devoted much of his speech on March 5 to emphasizing the achievements that his government has made thus far, including 50 trillion yen in gross national income, 9.5 percent growth in nominal GDP and the emergence of 1.7 million more jobs over the past four years. He apparently focused on such issues from the viewpoint that future economic conditions will serve as a key to his strategy of staying in power.
Abe said he will make the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics a success, expressing his enthusiasm about winning a third term as LDP president. However, there are numerous hurdles he must overcome to stay in power until September 2021.
First, the LDP-Komeito coalition must win the next House of Representatives election, which is due to be called before its members' four-year term expires in December 2018. The prime minister is expected to decide the timing of dissolving the lower chamber for a general election sometime after this coming autumn. There are observations within the political world and among political analysts that the prime minister will take advantage of momentum gained by securing re-election as LDP president to dissolve the lower house shortly after the party leadership race.
However, Abe still faces the risk of the governing bloc losing its overwhelming two-thirds majority. If the ruling coalition retains two-thirds of seats in the lower house, it can pass into law bills rejected by the upper house in a second vote under Article 59 of the Constitution. Moreover, constitutional amendment can be initiated by a concurring vote of two-thirds of all members of both houses, allowing it to be submitted to the public in a referendum.
For the prime minister to consider dissolving the lower chamber, the stable economy is essential. The government is trying to convince the public that its "Abenomics" policy mix, which depends largely on credit easing, will boost the economy in the future, and needs to introduce new policy measures under Abenomics to keep the public optimistic about Japan's economy. The timing of dissolving the lower house therefore will depend largely on the country's economic performance.
If re-elected to a third term, Abe will face the task of raising Japan's 8 percent consumption tax to 10 percent in October 2019, his self-imposed limit for delaying the tax hike. The prime minister will be required to decide whether to go ahead with the sales tax increase before the summer 2019 House of Councillors election, while looking closely at economic conditions.
The government has managed to maintain Abenomics by postponing measures that would be painful to the public, such as rehabilitating the debt-ridden budget and raising the consumption tax. If Abe stays in power longer, he will have to pay the price for delaying implementation of these measures. If he is to postpone the consumption tax hike to 10 percent again, it could damage the public's confidence in Japan's finances.
Prime Minister Abe declared on March 5 that the government will take advantage of the fruits of Abenomics to improve and expand social security programs, expressing enthusiasm in investing in child-rearing and education as well as work-style reform.
In addition to Abenomics, whose effects some experts have pointed out are waning, the Abe government intends to boost the economy through its wealth redistribution policy. At the party convention, the prime minister declared that his government will aim to increase Japan's GDP to 600 trillion yen, the highest level in the postwar period.
A source close to the LDP commented that Abe is apparently displaying a wide variety of policy measures in a bid to maintain his influence and public support as he seeks to stay in power over a long period. His strategy of remaining at the helm centers on maintaining the public's expectations for economic growth.
Former prime ministers Eisaku Sato and Yasuhiro Nakasone achieved long-time rule of the government thanks largely to brisk economic conditions.
An aide to Abe commented, "The prime minister is paying the closest attention to economy. He had been analyzing the achievements of his economic policy mix until shortly before the party convention."
On the issue of revising the postwar Constitution, Abe referred to the fact this year marks the 70th anniversary of the supreme law coming into force, stating, "We must embark on new nation-building efforts over the next 70 years."
Constitutional amendment is seen as Prime Minister Abe's largest goal for a third term. However, even Nakasone, who led the LDP to landslide victories in the elections of both houses of the Diet in 1986, was unable to achieve his government's goal of introducing a sales tax while he was in power.
Maintaining influence and public support in a possible third term is seen as a major challenge for Prime Minister Abe because there are expected to be moves among influential LDP legislators to aspire to succeed Abe as the next party leader.